Malaysia seek further boost
© AFP

Victory against Yemen late last month has helped Malaysia ascend 13 places in this month’s FIFA Coca/Cola World Ranking to 146. The double-digit climb ensured the Malayan Tigers were Asia's second biggest movers on the world ladder, behind only Tajikistan who soared 20 spots to 128 on the back of their last-four performance at the recent AFC Challenge Cup.

Playing at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Malaysia dominated the game throughout, with Baddrol Bakhtiar scoring the only goal of the contest ten minutes after the interval against an opponent 39 places higher in the global pecking order.

The victory, which followed in the wake of their failed qualifying campaign for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, came as a significant boost for Malaysian football. For national team coach K. Rajagobal, it offered a launching pad for a side who are embarking on preparation for November’s Asian Games in China’s Guangzhou, closely followed by the ASEAN Football Federation’s Suzuki Cup (formerly the Tiger Cup) a month later.

“There were positive signs from the game against Yemen but I need to see them in more matches before they can justify their places in the national team,” said the former Malaysian international striker. “I need to see continuous progress from these players so they must not rest on this success.”

Youth project
The 1960’s and 1970’s marked a prosperous era for Malaysian football during which time they were among Asia’s elite teams. They qualified for the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany where they inflicted a 3-0 scoreline on the USA, and they also featured in consecutive AFC Asian Cups in 1976 and 1980.

Times have changed since then, however, with Malaysia slumping from continental power to regional contenders. They may have competed in every Tiger Cup since 1996, but they have never won the coveted regional title. With the country desperate to relive their old glories, the last AFC Asian Cup in 2007 provided them with a chance to showcase their progress. But with fellow co-hosts Vietnam storming into the last eight, Malaysia bowed out on the back of three straight defeats.

This failure brought the ambitious Malaysians down back to earth and saw the nation’s football authorities turning to long-term development. After their failed campaign in the last Suzuki Cup in 2008, and a 5-0 loss to United Arab Emirates in the opening AFC Asian Cup qualifier, the coaching structure was reshuffled with Rajagobal taking the reins early last year.

Under the 53-year-old, Malaysia ended their 20-year gold-medal drought as their U-23 side swept past the likes of Thailand and Vietnam to win last December’s South-East Asian games in Laos. Inspired by the success, Malaysia set their sights on breaking new ground in this year’s Asian Games and claiming an inaugural Suzuki Cup title.

For the country’s future development, Rajagobal is likely to stick with their youth policy in forming the new national team. A series of friendlies have been arranged as the former PKNS FC forward is hoping his youngsters can sharpen their form and gain further experience. “We need the friendly matches to keep the players on their toes,” said Rajogobal. “They will be back in camp on March 22 and five days later we will be off to Bangkok to play the Thai national team. That will be our first real test.”