JUST a week ago they were seconds away from elimination but a redeemed national Under-23 football team were the ones celebrating the sweet taste of Sea Games
Never mind that it took an own goal to settle an entertaining tactical battle with Vietnam at the National Stadium in Vientiane.
Because here are 20 players who carried the burden of a nation on their young shoulders and emerging with their reputation enhanced.
It was what skipper Aidil Zafuan Radzak called upon his teammates to do in a bid to prove to doubters that there is hope in Malaysian football yet.
"What proved the difference today (yesterday) from that 3-1 loss to Vietnam before was the team's spirit and discipline.
"We have matured because of that experience and in just two weeks have grown from boys to men.
|Pham Thanh Luong (left) of Vietnam fights for the ball with Malaysia’s Mohd Sabre Mat Abu in the final at the National Stadium in Vientiane yesterday. Malaysia won 1-0.|
"Our desire not to give up and our hunger to end the country's 20-year wait for the football gold was what drove us to this victory.
"Every time the coach showed us a video of that earlier Vietnam match, we became even more motivated. This is a perfect reward for the players, coaches and people of Malaysia," said Aidil, 23, having led by example with a stellar performance in defence.
A half-time pep talk by coach K. Rajagobal saw Malaysia emerge re-energised for the second half when they wore down the Vietnam defence with their incisive breakaway attacks.
Rajagobal proved a master tactician against a host of foreign-coached sides in Vientiane, including Vietnam's Portuguese coach Henrique Callisto.
"All I told the players was that they had 45 minutes left to make their dreams come true. We soaked up Vietnam's pressure without cracking so now it was our chance to turn on the style.
"Our final pass was not good and we kept losing possession. If they wanted the gold as badly as I know they did, then they had to prove it on the field," said Rajagobal.
And so they did, Azmi Muslim's introduction with 10 minutes left for Baddrol Bakhtiar doing the trick.
Picking up the ball in his own half, Azmi drove through the Vietnam midfield and tried to feed Zaquan before laying it off for Safiq.
Safiq's cross from the left eluded Zaquan Adha Radzak, which caught Vietnam defender Mai Xuan Hop by surprise as the ball bounced off him and past goalkeeper Bui Tan Truong in the 84th minute.
"We knew we could score because we saw the Vietnam defence was a bit shaky. I don't care how the ball went in, scoring the goal was all we cared about," added Aidil. NST