So, what’s next for Harimau Malaya?

So what’s next Harimau Malaya, after the gratuitous euphoria over that ostensibly spectacular 3-3 drawn match, that succeeded only in providing a politician and some football fans a drop of water to savour in an extreme drought?

Was that inspiring result against South Korea, which however had no bearing on Malaysia’s fortunes in the ongoing Asian Cup at Doha, any indication that Harimau Malaya is ready to get into the cage with the Big Game for a place in the FIFA 2026 World Cup finals?

Well, going by the ecstatic celebrations on and off the pitch after the draw, and with the Malaysian commentator who screamed himself hoarse, one would have been forgiven for believing we had made it to the World Cup finals.

At the expense of sounding like a stick-in-the-mud, a party pooper if you like, Harimau Malaya was out-foxed, out-distanced, outplayed, outrun and out-manoeuvred by a far superior South Korean side who didn’t have a reply to Malaysia’s ferocious fighting spirit.

But you don’t have to be a football genius, to deduce that Harimau Malaya’s fire in the belly isn’t going to be enough to make a meal of Asia’s perennial World Cup “stalkers” like Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Australia, in the third round, if we get there.

Malaysia has assumed pole position in their second-round group with six points from two matches following wins against Taiwan and Kyrgyzstan. Another six points will firmly secure the country a place in the three-group third round stage of 18 teams. And it’s at this stage that the battles will get bloodier, and merciless.

For the record, Asia has eight automatic berths, plus one playoff seat – with the field extended to 48 teams now – and the top two teams in each of the three groups in the third round will claim their places in the finals.

The third and fourth placed teams in each group will move into the fourth round comprising two groups, with the top team in each group claiming the other two seats. The playoff with an inter-continental side, will be decided between the two runners-up in the fifth round.

Against such a backdrop, I don’t envy being in coach Kim Pan-Gon’s track shoes right now. He must be sweating profusely in them, quite aware, especially after that highly overrated draw, that Malaysian hopes of a place in the 2026 FIFA World Cup finals, have suddenly become an accessible dream.

If unrealistic expectations weren’t enough, the untimely announcement from the government to provide a grant or gift of RM5million of taxpayers’ money to the national team, didn’t help Kim’s design to manage expectations and unwarranted pressure on his players.

Understandably, politicians thrive on good press, always needing a big presence in the mainstream media and social media. Playing to the gallery has always been their mantra.

And as they do not subscribe to biblical advice of being unobtrusive when giving alms, the big announcement came from no less than Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, at the behest of sports minister Hannah Yeoh.

But truth be told, the national team could really do with this shot in the arm from the government, to use a cliched term. And frankly, I would rather that this shot came from the government, than from an individual who might want to have a say in team lineups, match tactics, and even coaching methods, for donating that kind of money.

On record, Harimau Malaya with an allocation of RM7 million, has been operating on a far lower budget than its superior competitors, like South Korea (RM94 million), Jordan (RM23.5 million), and Bahrain (RM28.2 million).

With that said, RM5 million won’t even cut it for preparations for the World Cup qualifiers if the national team needs to shift camp to strong Asian football nations like South Korea or Japan. I believe any “football physician” worth his salt, will prescribe such a location change for the wounded Harimau Malaya to convalesce.

Inarguably, the national side needs plenty of highly competitive friendly matches during the rehabilitation period, which they will get if camped in that region. Tigers are known to be fiercely territorial and dominant. But coach Kim must surely know that his tigers in Doha were anything but that, against their three opponents.

In that copiously-celebrated 3-3 draw, South Korea enjoyed 82 per cent possession, while Malaysia could only manage a mere 18. In terms of aggression – another commanding trait of the tiger – the Koreans dominated with 18 shots at goal as opposed to Malaysia’s seven.

And it’s such territorial domination and aggression – with everything else remaining virtually equal – that are more likely to take us to the World Cup finals, than sheer fighting spirit and luck.

As much as I abhor extolling Liverpool’s virtues, if only Harimau Malaya can have 70-80 percent of the Reds’ attacking shape and aggression, Malaysia will be pouncing into the World Cup finals, instead of growling meekly around its fringes, and celebrating drawn matches.

Perhaps Kim might want to consider shifting camp to South Korea, where I am sure he will be able to organise quality matches against top sides there, and also in neighbouring Japan, China, and even Russia.

Hopefully, when the national team come out of that rehabilitation process, they would have adopted two of the main traits of the tiger – domination and aggression.


The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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