EXCLUSIVE: OKS on the hope of a nation and why this 2017 team has what it takes

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Datuk Ong Kim Swee speaks exclusively to GOAL on the SEA Games and why there are reasons to be positive about this 2017 team.

At the end of November 2016 it was one of the darkest in Datuk Ong Kim Swee's career as a coach after missing out on the knock-out stage of the AFF Suzuki Cup. Although there were mitigating circumstances for the deficiencies in the team, the team still failed to perform at their level expected of them.

Eight months later, Ong in a new role with the Malaysia Under-22 squad sprang a surprise with a wonderful achievement of being one of the top 16 teams in Asia in that particular age group as he guided the team to the AFC U23 Championship finals. Just a month later, he is tasked with an even heavier burden - the 2017 KL SEA Games gold medal.

While acknowledging that the Asian level is one that the team should strive for, special circumstances surrounding the SEA Games is one that cannot be overlooked by the fans, players, management as well as Ong himself. He recounts the events leading up to the last Malaysian triumph on home soil in the competition, some 28 years ago as one that still ignites the imagination.

"You know football is our main sport. During 89' when we won the gold medal, before they play in the SEA Games, they played a friendly game against Melaka and I played against them," says Ong. "Of course, that can motivate any player to be part of the team in the future. Asian level is of course higher but the uniqueness of SEA Games is when the governments of every country are involved. We can see that all the countries in South-East Asia except for probably Philippines, that football is their number one sport. This makes it more challenging where every country want the gold medal.

"Whether you win or lose the overall medal standings, if you win the football event - it's considered like winning the SEA Games. This is something like what we did in Indonesia. I remember they were winning about 100 over gold medal but suddenly they lost the football gold medal to us, even their people say that it means nothing to them.

"So that is what the event means to people. So for us being the host this time around, even the ministers have been calling and checking on the team. I hope this time we'll take advantage of being the host country to grab back the gold medal.

Ong Kim Swee, Malaysia U23, U23 AFC Championship qualifiers, 19072017
(C) Goal Thailand

It's one thing to be playing the matches in a foreign environment without the added pressure of the huge home crowd or families and friends constantly checking up on your conditions and being able to follow the hype that has been generated by the media and fans.

For the players, the pressure will be unavoidable. As Ong mentioned, all eyes are on the football team and what they can do. A near full crowd was in attendance against Singapore last Wednesday and the numbers are expected to swell even more when Ong's team face up against Myanmar on Monday. 

His experience dictates that he expects his players to take on the pressure head on and use it to their advantage. Ong wants his players to take plenty of confidence from the achievements in July in the AFC U23 qualification and harness the power of momentum.

"I always say that you can't run away from pressure. I always have pressure not only when there's a big game, even a friendly game, even the match against Brunei. If you don't have pressure, it means that you're taking things lightly and you're overconfident. 

"Because the families and friends are around here, we have to take it as an advantage and not as added pressure. I believe this team has quality. I don't want to compare with previous editions but the with the results that we achieved in AFC U23, it proved that we can be a gold medal contender. 

"With the inclusion of the six players, whether you like it or not, they are all regulars in their team. Of course you can't compare Safawi and Haziq because in JDT [Johor Darul Ta'zim], they rotate their players. Like when I talk to my staffs, in Bangkok we go there with a certain expectations but this SEA Games with the inclusion of these six, I can say that we are gold medal contenders where we can match with all the other teams. 

"Indonesia will be a better team than the last time we faced them, Thailand are there and Vietnam being here much more earlier showed how serious they are. I believe the players themselves showed a very good attitude, they know what are expected of them. 

"Only that we cannot get carried away because we are the host. We have to be focus in every single games, especially tactically we must be very aware of what we need to do. If the players can capture that and understand what we want, I believe we can achieve that."

Malaysia, SEA Games
(C) KL2017

For a coach who has been taken teams to three previous SEA Games tournaments, Ong is undeniably the coach with the most experience in the competition. 2011 was a historic triumph in Jakarta but the latter two editions weren't quite the unequivocal success the first one was. 

That 2011 team consisted of players who are now household names in Malaysia - Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, Fadhli Shas, Muslim Ahmad, Baddrol Bakhtiar, Fakri Saarani and Nazmi Faiz - just to name a few.

And that is the team that Ong think this version of the SEA Games is most similar to. There's no denying that there's adequate depth in the squad and barring the one injury to Perak's Ahmad Khairil Anuar - it is the best Under-22 players that Ong has got in his squad right now.

"What I can say with the previous editions, I think 2011 and this squad there are similarities where we don't have prima donnas or so called star players. Where everybody work together and stick to the plan, on and off the field.

"2013 we were without 8 of our best players like Junior [Eldstal], Gary [Steven Robbat] and Wan Zack [Haikal] - but we still manage to get to the semi-final. That team actually I expected them to retain the gold medal but unfortunately we couldn't get past the semis. In 2015 for me was the worst preparations.

"This year, even though we only had 10 days before, the boys have been playing regularly together for the past one year. When I come in, I only change a few things and of course there are a few players who were with me during the Young Tigers time - they make my job easier. Most of them know what my character is and they need to do."

If 28 years ago, the football competition at the SEA Games is one that doesn't have an age limit, the scenario is different these days. However Ong is dead certain that the change hasn't devalue the glory of winning the gold medal. On top of that Ong is adamant that this is the right path being set and with the upcoming tournaments being lined-up, the gradual progression of the team is the one to look out for.

"Football even if you put it as a Under-19 at the SEA Games, it will still spark something because it's football. The beauty is that when you have the Under-22 even though normally it's Under-23, it is the right roadmap set by AFC. It gives the opportunity for the respective countries not only for this tournament but more than that.

"We qualify now for AFC U23, so we are looking forward to that with the same batch of players. After that, we have the Asian Games where the same batch of players are going to play. So when we start well, there's a momentum to look out. I think for it being Under-22 tournament, it prepares the teams in SEA for youth tournaments in Asia."

The Myanmar match will be a real test of Malaysia's credentials to be one of the teams in the hunt for the ultimate prize. Having seen Ong Kim Swee doing it before, an entire country will undoubtedly be behind him, backing him to repeat the feat come the final on 29 August - the perfect gift to the nation on its 60th birthday.

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