BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
With less than a week left to go before the kickoff of the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games and the M-League taking another break, the attention of football fans in the country has shifted towards the regional sports competition.
Fresh from their success of snagging an unlikely spot in the 2018 AFC U23 Championship as Group H leaders, having edged qualifier hosts and regional powerhouse Thailand, as well as Mongolia and bitter rivals Indonesia, Malaysia U22 are now expected to capture the football gold medal from defending SEA Games football champions Thailand, an uphill battle despite playing at home.
In the qualifiers last month, Datuk Ong Kim Swee's boys recorded victories over Indonesia and Mongolia in the group stage, but were hammered 3-0 by the hosts; showing the massive gulf between the two sides' qualities. The Young Tigers' campaign received a massive help by lady luck, as Thailand had to play their matches against Indonesia and the unfancied Mongolia on a waterlogged pitch, with both matches ending in draws. As a result, the War Elephants only qualified for the finals as the best second-placed teams in the qualifiers.
Goal spoke to former Kedah head coach Azraai Khor Abdullah, who won the double-treble in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons with the Green and Yellows before moving on to hold a post with the Harimau Muda programme in 2010, to get his take on the missing aspect of youth development in the country, as compared to the their regional neighbours.
In a telephone conversation, Azraai told us that the most prominent aspect missing from youth players' development in the country is the jump to senior-level football. He remarked on his time with Kedah, when he gave several youth players their start at the senior level.
"First of all, what is missing is the path of these young players. For instance, when I coached Kedah I promoted Khyril Muhymeen [Zambri] to the senior team at the age of 17. He then received call-ups to the senior and junior national teams. The same happened to Baddrol Bakhtiar, Bunyamin Omar and a few other boys.
"And at the time Kedah were also competing in the AFC Cup. In 2008, our first year in the competition, we faced fixture congestion and I've had to utilise squad rotation, using youth players that I have promoted.
"We then unearthed the talent of Shakir Ali. We promoted him to the senior team, he played in the AFC Cup, he started scoring and received a call-up from Rajagobal [former Harimau Muda and Malaysia head coach Datuk Rajagobal Krishnasamy]. Afterwards he joined the Harimau Muda programme for two, three years.
"What I hope and have been hoping from those days is for the U23 players to find playing time with the senior teams. These days, it's just the Kedah boys, and a number who play for Pulau Pinang. This (lack of senior team playing time) causes low exposure, when we expect those representing the country in the SEA Games to also be playing at a higher level. The coaches need to be brave. With the hectic July schedule, they should have used it as a chance to expose their younger boys," he pointed out, touching on the recent month of July and the first week of August, when M-League teams who also compete in the Malaysia Cup had to go through 11 matches in a 36-day stretch.
He later added more names to the list of youth players he promoted as Kedah boss in a text message; Sabre Abu, Faizal Abu Bakar, Helmi Eliza Elias
Another aspect that he finds wanting in youth development in Malaysia is the gap between the senior team organisation and their youth system.
"Without naming names, several teams have very good youth teams that have been winning at the junior levels, but their boys are not promoted (to the senior side). Instead, the teams sign non-local senior players.
"Kedah until now still promote their young boys. Apart from the leftback position which is occupied by Fitri Omar, the rest are all Kedahans. And lately Hanif (Dzahir) has been challenging Fitri for the position. Even during my double-treble stint we have been developing and promoting local boys.
"The question is, do the senior team coaching staff, the senior team head coach attend these junior competitions; the President's Cup and the Youth Cup, to observe their own junior sides? I don't think so. How would they then be certain of the type of players that they need?
"During my time, I would attend Kedah youth team home matches at the Jitra Mini Stadium together with the late Ahmad Basri (former Kedah FA administrator Dato' Paduka Ahmad Basri Akil), as well as away youth matches held in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia, as far as Ipoh. We would go to Pulau Pinang and Perlis to see their performance. We would scout their abilities and performances one by one, but in addition to this, our presence would be a source of motivational boost for the team," explained Azraai.
He made comparisons with Vietnam's scouting system, where the net cast is wider and is able to spot a greater number of promising youth players.
"Vietnam's scouting begins at the district level where thousands (of young players) are scouted. I read one article whereby they gather tens of thousands of them.
"You can see that in terms of youth development, Vietnam are following close behind Thailand in this region. Their young players are coming up, and Myanmar's too. Their junior team have qualified for the World Cup.
"Whereas for us in Malaysia, we're still neither here nor there," said the 65-year old trainer.
On the Malaysian FA (FAM's) decision to shut down the Harimau Muda programme in 2015, in order to let the state FA's and clubs shoulder the task of developing young players, Azraai expressed his agreement.
"You tell me, where are the products of the programme? How many former Harimau Muda players are prominent names in the Malaysia Super League now?
"Most of them are not household names now. We can consider the programme unsuccesful, especially when they were considered as the backup national team players. How many of them are in the national team now? It's sad. The players are not anywhere now, so for me FAM did the right thing by shutting the programme down.
"Maybe FAM should come up with something new," lamented Azraai.
But when asked about the chances of the Young Tigers against the War Elephants in the coming SEA Games, Azraai was optimistic, telling us that things may go the hosts' way, or against the favourites'.
Malaysia U22 in the 2018 AFC Championship qualifiers. Photo by Goal Thailand
"I'm sure head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee is already aware of the Thais' strengths and weaknesses, and we are capable of defeating them.
"This is football, we can still overcome them if we face them in the semis of the final match. (In the AFC qualifiers) they defeated us, but against Indonesia they only managed a draw. We can't simply judge by what's on paper. Sometimes coaches get the tactics wrong and what they plan don't go their way," he pointed out.
Malaysia have been drawn in Group A of the SEA Games, and their campaign begins on August 14 against Brunei at the Shah Alam Stadium.