By Prem Kumar
2012 proved to be eventful and historic for Malaysian football as it provided plenty of firsts in the country's grassroots game.
Domestically, Kelantan dominated the scene and won three trophies in one calendar year for the first time in their history. 2012 also saw Singapore re-join the Malaysian Super League under the name of LionsXII following a 17-year lapse. But for the national team, their inability to defend the AFF Suzuki Cup stands out like a sore thumb, with the inquest into their failure still on-going at the time of writing.
The year started with huge expectations, with everything geared towards preparing the senior national squad for the AFF Suzuki Cup in November. The team - under the care of Datuk K.Rajagopal, had to rely on friendly games for practice. A total of 18 friendlies were played against local outfits, touring English clubs, and other national teams. However, it all ended with a whimper as Malaysia crashed out of the regional tournament in the semi-final stage following a 3-1 aggregate loss to runners-up Thailand.
The juniors meanwhile, entered the year on the back of two major successes - winning the 2011 Jakarta SEA Games gold medal in November and becoming the only team from Southeast Asia that qualified to the third round of the 2012 Olympic Asian Qualifiers. Unfortunately, Ong Kim Swee’s boys could not win any of their matches and finished bottom of Group C in the qualifiers. They also missed out on a spot in the 2013 AFC U-22 Championship as the qualification round ended in controversy; with hosts Myanmar getting away with the usage of over-aged players in their team. The Young Tigers however, took home two invitational trophies in the shape of the SCTV Cup and the VFF Cup.
|DOMESTIC LEAGUES AND CUPS
East coast outfit Kelantan had a year to remember as they accomplished their first-ever domestic treble. They also became only the third team in the brief history of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) to win it in consecutive seasons. The Red Warriors had a decent continental campaign as well, reaching the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup before bowing out at the hands of eventual champions Arbil SC from Iraq.
Kelantan’s clean sweep of three trophies aside, unfancied Sime Darby FC wrote their name into FA Cup folklore as the first club side (as opposed to other Malaysian teams, who are backed by local football associations) to qualify for the tournament's final. In the Malaysia Cup, big-spending Premier League winners ATM ran Kelantan close for the title.
In August, teenage midfielder Nazmi Faiz Mansor made a piece of history for himself and Malaysian football by signing a professional contract with Portuguese Primeira Liga side SC Beira-Mar. In doing so, the 18-year-old became the first Malaysian to join a top-flight European club. He made his debut for the Aveiro-based club’s senior side in a friendly and scored his first goal for the youth team a few days after his 18th birthday.
2012 also witnessed Sean Gan Giannelli become the first Malaysian to sign for an Italian club, Serie D side Atletico Arezzo. In Indonesia, Safee Sali’s four goals against Gresik United in March made him the first Malaysian footballer to score a hat-trick in a professional league outside Malaysia.
In July, Tokyo-born Tam Sheang Tsung made his official senior debut for Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua against English giants Manchester United.
|PLAYER OF THE YEAR | Badri Radzi, Kelantan
Badri Radzi. Period. The Kelantan skipper was influential and inspirational in helping the side win everything on show this season. In fact, the midfielder created all of Kelantan’s goals in their Malaysia Cup final win (3-2) over ATM.
Amazingly, he was snubbed by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) at their annual awards and to add insult to injury, Rajagopal did not even consider him for the AFF Suzuki Cup preliminary squad. It was reported that Singapore captain Shahril Ishak expressed his relief at Badri’s exclusion from the Malaysian squad when he learnt about the news. The 30-year-old continues to wait for his first international cap.
|MOMENT OF THE YEAR | Mahalli Jasuli's goal sends Harimau Malaya to semis
Malaysia’s second goal against Indonesia in the final Group B match of the AFF Suzuki Cup sticks out as the moment that will be remembered for all the right reasons.
With Malaysia needing a win to get through the group, former Harimau Muda captain Mahalli Jasuli made a lung-bursting run to a Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor pass and scored from an acute angle to send the fans wild. The goal gave Malaysia full points and confirmed their place in the semi-finals.
|WISHES FOR MALAYSIAN FOOTBALL IN 2013
On the local front, the MSL is set to excite fans with the presence of big name foreign signings like Dani Guiza, Simone Del Nero and George Boateng. Expect attendance to rise by leaps and bounds for league matches.
One thing is certain, 2013 promises to be a year full of joy for football fans in Malaysia.