By Falah Abdullah
The blueprint of the Young Tigers project can be traced back to the glorious 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship held in Malaysia. This tournament featured a plethora of today's global football stars, namely Argentinian playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, former Anfield hero Michael Owen and the potent French duo of Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet.
Our national youth team was under the guidance of Tunisian tactician Hatem Souissi, and was grouped alongside a Uruguayan team powered by former Juventus reserve striker, Marcelo Zalayeta. Malaysia finished bottom of the group with three losses.
The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) set out on qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and invested a hefty US$6million into our youth football and retained the services of Souissi. This led to the formation of the early Young Tigers-esque team known as Olympic 2000.
This young team consisted of established players such as former Perak duo, V.Saravanan and the volatile Khalid Jamlus. They were given the exposure of playing in the Malaysian Premier League.
Fast forward to the year 2007, the Young Tigers A were also drafted into the Premier League by the FAM. They sealed a historic Premier League title victory in the following year proving the enormous quality that the team possessed, followed by the SEA Games 2009 gold medal success. The Young Tigers achieved this impressive double feat under national coach, Datuk K. Rajagobal.
Under the tutilage of Ong Kim Swee, the Young Tigers successfully defended their SEA Games gold in Jakarta last year and finished an impressive fourth in their inaugural season in the S-League.
The main strength of the current squad is of course their supremo, Ong Kim Swee. A former Malaysian international, Kim Swee was a coach at the famed Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) and the core of his squad are alumni from the school and with whom he has built a good rapport since their formative teenage years.
He has also instilled a crisp short passing mentality in his players that resulted in the Young Tigers playing an attractive attacking brand of football which exudes flair and fluidity.
In the recent victorious VFF Cup campaign, a so called "depleted" Young Tigers team surprised many with an effective makeshift forward line of Thamil Arasu, top scorer Syahrul Azwari and Hazwan Bakri.
This proves that regardless of injuries and suspensions, Kim Swee sticks to his attacking philosophy.
The support provided by FAM in sending the Young Tigers on an eight month European stint in the Slovakian League in 2010 is also paying dividends as the young players are showing signs of maturity in their mentality and style of football.
I do believe that the talent pool in Malaysian football is hugely underrated as there is a steady stream of young talents for the Young Tigers. The state Football Associations also deserve credit for the emergence of Kim Swee's squad for their co-orperation in releasing their players to join the Young Tigers.
Prolific Hazwan Bakri is currently on a loan deal from an ailing Kuala Lumpur team relegated to the Premier League whilst Sabah hotshot Rozaimi Abdul Rahman will be joining come next season.
The nagging problem faced by Kim Swee is arguably, that the fact remains, his team acts as a feeder to the Malayan Tigers which means that he will be deprived of his best young players.
One such event was the previous VFF Cup where prodigious winger, Wan Zack Haikal, the aptly named midfield enforcer Gary Steven Robbat, defenders Zubir Azmi and Fadhli Shas and goalkeeper Izham Tarmizi were called up to the senior national team.
This created a hoopla surrounding a supposed tug of war between Datuk K.Rajagobal and Ong Kim Swee regarding these players. FAM drew curtains on the issue by giving the priority to Rajagobal's mission of retaining the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Nevertheless, cometh the hour, cometh the man as Ong Kim Swee rose to the occasion against all odds by guiding his fledglings to their first VFF Cup victory last month.
It is not far-fetched for me to say that this young team is the future of Malaysian football and any hope that we harbour of ruling the region rests solely on the shoulders of Ong Kim Swee.
The Malacca native has shown that the players respond to him and are comfortable with the attacking system employed. It is imperative that FAM retain his services for the foreseeable future to ensure that these talented bunch fulfill their immense potential.