By Ahmad Nazrin Syahmi Mohamad Arif
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 27: The heady run enjoyed by Harimau Malaya in the past nine months has allowed them to wrap up the 2019 season on a comfortable perch — ready to strike and grab an automatic ticket to the 2023 Asian Cup finals for the first time in 40 years.
And if they carry their momentum into the new year and succeed, Malaysia would also be creating history by advancing into the third round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers despite competing against fancied teams such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who were ranked 71st in the world, Vietnam (94), Thailand (113) and Indonesia (173) in Group G of the second round of the campaign.
Harimau Malaya have recorded nine wins in 13 matches this year since emerging as the runners-up of the 2018 AFF Cup in December last year.
Four of the nine victories were scored against higher-ranked teams, namely Afghanistan (147) at the Airmarine Cup Championship (March), Nepal (161) and Tajikistan (116) in the Tier 1 international friendlies (June and November), and Thailand (109) in Group G of the 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifier on Nov 14.
Coach Tan Cheng Hoe’s side almost sprang a surprise against UAE, then ranked 65th, in their 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifier at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil on Sept 10 but lost narrowly 1-2.
The 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar while the 2023 Asian Cup will be staged in China.
However, Malaysia need to top Group G to automatically qualify for China and also advance into an unprecedented third round qualifying tournament of the World Cup. To be sure of that, the Harimau Malaya squad must win their remaining three matches — against UAE in Dubai on March 26, against Vietnam in Bukit Jalil on March 31 and against Thailand in Bangkok in June next year.
Malaysia are now in second place of Group G with nine points after having played five of the eight matches in the group.
The UAE lie in fourth place with six points and one match in hand, while Vietnam lead the table with 11 points followed by Thailand in third place on eight points and Indonesia at the bottom without any point.
It has been an outstanding year for the 51-year-old Cheng Hoe, who has given the national team a new lease of life in terms of tactical play and style.
Under the watch of the former Kedah coach, Malaysia have surged 13 rungs up the world rankings, from 167th place in February to 154th in December, ahead of neighbouring countries Singapore (157) and Indonesia (173).
Malaysia have never qualified for the World Cup, and the last time the national team played in the Asian Cup was when they co-hosted the 2007 edition. But it has been nearly 40 years since Malaysia last gained an automatic Asian Cup slot, at the Kuwait edition in 1980.
To qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup is a mission of the national team as stated in the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) Road Map, also known as F:30. Based on their progress thus far, the Harimau Malaya squad seem to be striding confidently towards that goal.
Among the other targets of the F:30 road map are for the national Under-22 (U-22) squad to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as for the U-18 and U-15 squads to qualify for the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2021 U-17 World Cup respectively.
Meanwhile, the national U-18 squad led by Brad Maloney have remained on the right track of the F:30 by emerging as Group G champions in the 2020 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-19 Championship qualifying round, which is also the qualifier for the 2021 U-20 World Cup.
The team stole the limelight at the 2019 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship when they defeated Australia 3-0 in a Group B match but lost 0-1 to the latter in the final.
The emergence of a few notable players in the squad such as Luqman Hakim Shamsudin, Muhammad Umar Hakeem Suhar Redzuan, Muhammad Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi and Harith Haiqal Adam Afkar shows that Malaysia are not short of young talents.
A daunting task awaits team manager Datuk Kamarul Ariffin Mohd Shahar in preparing the best squad for the AFC U-19 Championship in Uzbekistan in October next year in their bid to qualify for the 2021 U-20 World Cup.
However, the fortunes of Datuk Ong Kim Swee’s U-22 squad bore a stark contrast to the above achievements in the 2019 season. First, their hope of playing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was dashed after they failed to advance into the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers in Thailand in January next year.
And to rub salt into the wound, Kim Swee’s team were eliminated in the group stage of the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines. They even suffered the ignominy of losing 1-3 to unheralded Cambodia.
A day after the defeat, FAM announced that Kim Swee’s contract, which is due to expire at the end of the year, would not be renewed.
Amidst the roar of the Harimau Malaya, the U-15 squad’s challenge too ended with a whimper. Despite being granted a relatively easy path in the 2021 U-17 World Cup campaign, they were bundled out of the AFC U-16 Championship qualifying round and failed to meet FAM’s F:30 strategic mission.
On the domestic front, Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) reaffirmed their superiority when they emerged the 2019 Super League champions last June, becoming the first team to win the title for the sixth successive time.
The Southern Tigers, powered by mostly national team players, were also crowned the Malaysia Cup and Charity Shield champions after defeating Kedah 3-0 and Perak 1-0 respectively in the finals.
Kedah lifted the 2019 FA Cup in July with a 1-0 victory over Perak while Sabah ended a seven-year wait to return to the Super League next season when they grabbed the Premier League title.
JDT winger Muhammad Safawi Rasid hit the pinnacle of his club career when he retained The Most Valuable Player (MVP) title at the 2019 National Football Awards, holding on to the record of being the youngest recipient of the award.
Overall, 2019 has been an exciting year for Malaysian football and local fans would certainly be hoping for greater things in 2020 from both the junior and senior squads on the international stage.