Malaysia maintain regional supremacy
© AFP

Malaysia’s U-23 side retained their SEA Games crown yesterday as they pipped hosts Indonesia to the title following a 4-3 win on penalties. The success continues the Young Malayan Tigers’ momentum at the youth level, following on from beating Vietnam in the final of the 2009 edition and then storming into Asia’s final qualifying round for the Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

Dominating the regional showpiece by topping the medal table with 178 golds, Indonesia entered the final at the Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium in Senayan hoping to round off their campaign in style. However, it was the visitors who held the mental edge, having won their group meeting by a solitary goal.

Cheered on by a 80,000-strong home crowd, Indonesia got off to a dream start when defender Gunawan Dwi Cahyo opened the scoring with a header after just five minutes. The goal merely spurred Malaysia into life, however, and they drew level nine minutes from break when Mohd Asraruddin Omar got his head on to skipper Baddrol Bakhtiar's inch-perfect cross.

Both sides failed to find the back of the net thereafter with the scoreline locked at 1-1 after regular and extra time. In the ensuing penalty shootout, goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat proved Malaysia’s hero as he saved Ferdinan Sinaga's strike to give his side the decisive edge, before Bakhtiar kept his cool to convert the match-winning kick.

Having secured the hard-fought victory with an under-strength side missing several key players, coach Ong Kim Swee cut a relieved figure as he addressed the media afterwards. "It was a tough job in selecting players as we have faced so many injuries,” said the 40-year-old. "But no matter who I picked to play, they gave it their all. I did not have to tell the players what to do because they already knew the situation, so when it came to the penalties, they showed good character and attitude."

Emerging stars
The Football Tournament of the SEA Games, which was in its 26th edition, proved the biggest in the tournament’s history, with all 11 south-east Asian countries involved in the competition for the first time. And with only Olympic U-23 sides eligible to play, it provided the region’s talented youngsters with a perfect setting to emerge and shine.

Having impressed in Malaysia’s Olympic qualifier against Japan in September, which they lost 2-0 despite their rivals’ dominance, Che Mat continued his good form between stick throughout the tournament, conceding just three times in six matches. Bakhtiar, meanwhile, was always at the centre of their attack play, finishing as the team's top-scorer with three goals.

As for Rahmad Darmawan's Indonesia, despite the heartbreak of defeat in the final, they proved beyond doubt that they are a competitive side. Spearheading their attack was Persidafon Dafonsoro forward Patrich Wanggai, who is being heralded as the nation's best young striker after racking up five goals.

Also on target five times was Vietnam striker Nguyen Van Quyet, who excelled in the group phase as his side stormed into the semi-finals only to lose 2-0 to the hosts. The Vietnamese proved the tournament's most prolific side with 16 goals but their good work up front was undermined by a leaky defence. This was evident in the third-place playoff, when they went down 4-1 to Myanmar, whose striking prodigy Kyaw Ko Ko sealed the bronze medal with a fifth goal of his own.

Winning the tournament's Golden Boot awards with six goals, though, was the unheralded Lao marksman Lamnao Singto. The MCTPC FC man opened his account in his side’s 3-2 loss to Myanmar, before finding the target once again as his side drew 2-2 against Brunei. After twice scoring against Philippines only to see his side lose to a late goal, Singto went on to complete his second brace in their 3-0 crushing of Timor-Leste as Lao recorded their only victory.