BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
In the end, Malaysia needed a dramatic late come-from-behind 2-1 win by Group D hosts Saudi Arabia over Yemen to confirm their qualification to the 2018 AFC U-19 Championship as the fifth best runners up.
The qualification is only the most recent success obtained by Malaysia junior national teams in 2017. In July, Malaysia U23 qualified for the AFC U-23 Championship finals as Group H winners, and in September the U16 side followed in their seniors' footsteps. Although Malaysia have qualified for the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship finals as the hosts, they still managed to finish the qualifiers as one of the top five best runners up.
Although the U16 side is composed of boys from the National Football Development Programme which is run by Malaysia's Ministry of Youth and Sports, their 'elder brothers' are part of the Malaysian FA (FAM) system.
Malaysia U23 are led by head coach Dato' Ong Kim, while the U19 boys have Bojan Hodak as their head coach, with both appointed by FAM president Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim this year.
In Ong's case, it was more of a reassignment than an appointment, as he had been moved from the senior national team, a move that sparked controversy as Tunku Ismail had announced his plan of replacing Ong as the national team head coach even before he was elected FAM president in March.
Ong Kim Swee. Photo by Getty
Furthermore, it was hard not to feel hard done in for Ong, whose stint as national team head coach was marred by several bizarre issues, most of which Tunku Ismail, who is also known as TMJ by fans, also had a hand in as the owner of Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT).
But to Ong's credit, he assumed his former role of Malaysia U23 head coach quietly and went straight to work. His familiarity with the job must have helped him immensely, as he successfully navigated his charges through the AFC U-23 Championship qualification stage in Thailand, and they even qualified in style as group champions. They edged group hosts and favourites Thailand, who had to qualify as one of the top-five second placed sides. This success was then followed by their silver medal-winning run in the 2017 SEA Games which Malaysia hosted in Kuala Lumpur, just a month later.
The appointment of former Kelantan and JDT head coach Hodak in August was thankfully a lot less controversial, although almost immediately he expressed his bewilderment at his new charges' apparent lack of basic tactical knowledge. Nevertheless like Ong, he kept his head down and played the cards he were dealt with, and guided his side to a second-place finish in the AFF U-18 Championship in September. And now he has made a continental contender out of the same boys.
On top of this, Malaysia's futsal team too have qualified for the AFC championship next year after finishing as runners up in the AFF tournament just weeks earlier, but then again they have consistently competed at the Asian stage, even before TMJ's presidency.
Despite all the success he has had with JDT, and now at FAM, the Johor Crown Prince is no stranger to criticism. Almost all of his decisions and suggestions, or those made by organisations that he chairs, such as the additional South East Asian import slot, will be met by skepticism online and in the media (including from this writer), questioning their viability and practicality, and predicting their outcomes (usually bleak).
Now that TMJ's decisions has led to youth football success for Malaysia, fans and his critics may need to admit that they need to let the man do what he needs to do to improve football in the country, and stop finding faults in his plans and picking apart every single syllable of his throwaway remarks.
Much like how the final scoreline is the most important thing to a football team, it seems that what matters the most with TMJ's presidency is where he takes Malaysian football, and not how.
Of course TMJ too needs to pay less attention to the criticism and stop trying to respond to every single one of them, when he now has a club to run and a football association to preside over.
After all, one thing remains elusive to him, the success of the senior national team. His replacement for Ong; experienced Portuguese trainer Nelo Vingada is still without a win after five matches, and the Malayan Tigers are currently bottom of Group B in the Asian Cup qualification.
If Vingada can somehow overturn his charges' poor form and produce a miracle run in their remaining three qualification group matches to sneak through to the finals, no fan or observer in their right mind would think of second-guessing any of the FAM president's decisions again, for a long time.
The Malaysia senior team. Photo from @hkleague Twitter