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Safee Sali’s rise, K. Rajagopal’s influence and how both have stimulated the ‘Renaissance of Malaysian Football’

Safee Sali’s rise, K. Rajagopal’s influence and how both have stimulated the ‘Renaissance of Malaysian Football’

The Malayan Tigers' star's two-week trial with Cardiff City has been labelled a PR stunt by some, but the tide is turning on how the fans perceive the national team

COMMENT
By Keeshaanan Sundaresan

In a footballing world full of change, Malaysian football is certainly going in the right direction. Well, at one point in their history, they were on the right track until several problems affected a team which was once feared in Asia. Perhaps the 1994 corruption scandal is just one of many other crises, but it remains the most significant one to have rocked the nation.

Sometimes, comparison draws out negativity. Face the fact, Malaysian legend Mokhtar Dahari and the rest of the players from the 'golden age' of football in the South East Asian nation are a group which comes along once in a lifetime. And there’s no point in comparing them with the current crop of players. Times change, and so do individuals. At the current time, Malaysian football is on the rise.


THE K. RAJAGOPAL FACTOR

Whether we like it or not, Malaysian football fans are typically glory-hunters. Therefore, the immediate impact made by coach K. Rajagopal attracted widespread attention around the nation. Within one year of his appointment in 2009, Rajagopal impeccably led the Malayan Tigers to an emphatic Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup triumph as they brushed off an early crisis to end the tournament as champions.

Before he was given the honour of coaching the national team, the likes of Norizan Abu Bakar and B. Sathianathan all tried their luck but failed. Neither ever really looked convincing in their attempts to change the fortunes of Malaysian football. In came Rajagopal - and the rest is history.

What he has inserted into the team is discipline, belief and flair, while emphasis has been placed on youth development. Young talents like Slovakia-based Wan Zack Wan Haikal or K. Gurusamy are just two of those making magnificent impressions with the Under-23 team, and it may only be a matter of time before they find themselves in the senior side.


"A proper mindset enables players to be switched into a variety of tactics depending on the brand of football preferred by the coach. If ever there was a person to be credited for this renaissance in Malaysian football, it has to be K. Rajagopal."


In football, mentality is one crucial aspect that should never be overlooked. A proper mindset enables players to be switched into a variety of tactics depending on the brand of football preferred by the coach. If ever there was a person to be credited for this renaissance in Malaysian football, it has to be K. Rajagopal.


SAFEE SALI’S RISE TO PROMINENCE

The so-called ‘Malaysian Wayne Rooney’ has been ripping apart defences for both club and country in recent times, making him an integral aspect of Malaysia’s resurgence. He might not be a worldwide superstar. He might not be part of a top-class squad. But in an improving team like Malaysia, players don’t come much better than Safee Sali.

He burst onto the scene during the triumphant 2007 Merdeka Cup, in which the deadly combination of Sali and Zaquan Adha proved vital in their successful run, with the former finishing as top scorer in the tournament with four goals.

Speaking of his influence, Malaysia’s recent AFF Suzuki Cup triumph comes to mind. For a man who has scored an incredible 110 goals in just over 130 appearances with various clubs in Malaysia, Safee’s importance to the national team was absolutely undeniable. Five goals earned him another top scorer award as the Malayan Tigers lifted their first Suzuki Cup by defeating Indonesia in the two-legged final.

So, perhaps it was about time Sali tested himself in another league? Indonesian club Pelita Jaya came in with an interesting offer, and the Malaysian goal-machine repaid their faith by banging in seven goals in 13 appearances. Sounds great? Well, that’s probably why Cardiff City swooped to take him on trial for two weeks.

"You can talk all you want about this trial stint being mere PR propaganda by Cardiff’s Malaysian owner, but the man who is regarded as the best striker of his generation in Malaysia certainly has the CV to advocate such an opportunity."

You can talk all you want about this trial stint being mere PR propaganda by Cardiff’s Malaysian owner, but the man who is regarded as the best striker of his generation in Malaysia certainly has the CV to advocate such an opportunity.


CONCLUSION

You achieve success in football when you win things, and, for Malaysia, the AFF Suzuki Cup can be used as a platform for further success. In fact, the consequences of the triumph can already be seen - and they are positive. Their brave run in the Fifa 2014 World Cup qualification campaign, in which they almost reached the third round for the first time in their history, is the prime example.

The barriers to success are always going to be complex, but things look encouraging for Malaysian football fans because their team have shown their quality when it mattered. Confidence has been restored and the mentality is improving. The backing from fans seems to be doing the trick as well, and all of this makes for a fascinating period in Malaysian football. Long may it continue.

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