THE national Under-23 men’s football team are in for the match of their lives in Vientiane today.
Malaysians are hungry for the team to return with international glory. And hopes are high that the the team can end a 20-year gold drought for Malaysia in the biennial SEA Games in the final against Vietnam at the Main Stadium of the National Sports Complex.
But for coach K. Rajagopal, it is more than just the Games gold medal. To him, it’s about igniting a revival for Malaysia to challenge strongly on the international stage.
A total of eight coaches have taken charge of the national team for the last nine SEA Games (1991-2007) and none found success, including Frenchman Claude Le Roy, a former coach of the Cameroon World Cup team.
“It is not just about winning the gold medal. There is more to it this time,” said Rajagopal.
“But first we have a tough job on our hands against Vietnam. They have a better record against us. I have a game plan for the final, not the same one when we lost to them (1-3 in the group match).”
He felt that outside elements (poor refereeing) contributed to the defeat.
“We have to be prepared for any situation this time. We have learnt a good lesson from the first game. We lost a few key players to suspensions and I hope the boys are wiser this time and stay totally focused on the game,” said Rajagopal.
In the Dec 6 match, the referee awarded a controversial penalty and it threw the Malaysian team off rhythm.
For the final, on-form striker Norsharul Idlan Talaha, who has three goals to his credit, is expected to lead the strike force of a team determined to make amends for the earlier defeat.
“We are not going to get a better chance than this to get even with Vietnam,” said Norsharul yesterday.
Vietnam not only won the group match but left Malaysia facing the brunt of the disciplinary board, with striker Mohd Zaquan Adha Abdul Razak (two-match ban) and midfielder Mohd Amirulhadi Zainal, who remains suspended for the final, paying a heavy price.
The good news is that Rajagopal will have Mohd Zaquan back in the team after the striker had to return home for treatment for an eye infection. He will provide more options in attack.
The other forwards available for selection are Abdul Manaf Mamat and Ahmad Fakri Saarani.
Norsharul admitted that Vietnam were the new force in South-East Asian football with consistently good performances in tournaments.
“We have not been able to beat them in competitions since 2001. It is a tall order but we have come this far and will it give our best shot,” he said.
The fact that Malaysia are in the final again after eight years is, in itself, an achievement.
They eliminated defending champions Thailand with a 2-1 win in the group stage.
It was a memorable victory because it resulted in Thailand’s failure to make the semi-finals for the first time in 36 years.
Malaysia’s impressive performance, thus far, has created a buzz back home.
The semi-final match between Laos and Malaysia on Monday, which was shown live on TV2, had a top rating with more than three million viewership.
Malaysia beat Laos 3-1 and it drew encouraging support, including from the government when the Cabinet endorsed a RM50mil grant towards the development of the game at the grassroots level.