Exclusive: OKS on an existing scar and what China 2018 represents for the players

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Asiana
Goal speaks exclusively to Ong Kim Swee that SEA Games final, and looking ahead to the AFC U23 Championship in China in January 2018.

A painful lesson it was on August 29 2017 when Malaysia fell at the last stage of the 2017 SEA Games at Shah Alam Stadium. The expectant home crowd was envisaging celebrating the Independence Day on the 31st with the joy of winning gold at the football event. Alas, it was not to be. 

In a match of small margins, Malaysia were to be cruelly undone when Haziq Nadzli somehow managed to punch the ball into his own net, from a Thailand corner kick routine. Tried as Malaysia did, they just couldn't find their way through a resolute Thai defence and thus ended a hugely successful tournament on a relative sour note.

Three months on from the fateful night in August, it's a pain that is still keenly felt by the Malaysia Under-23 national team head coach, Datuk Ong Kim Swee. Pictures of him in a dejected mood after the final whistle had been plastered all over the internet.

For Ong himself, the final defeat also serves another purpose - as a big motivation factor to do better in the AFC U23 Championship that kicks off in China in January 2018.

"Of course it's very painful because the boys have done a very good job until the final hurdle," Ong told Goal. "What I can say is, it shows that we still have work to be done and we cannot take this achievement as something that is very good. With that loss, I believe that we learned our lesson.

"Unfortunately that we lose with that type of goal, one that comes maybe every 20 to 30 years once. But everybody played a part, where we managed to create a few opportunities. Even before Haziq conceded, he made a few good saves. So we cannot blame individuals.

"Overall I'm satisfied but to lose in the final in front of our own crowd, my family - it hurts. I've won once and had I won another one, it would have been a very good achievement for me. I hope that with the lessons learned there, we can become much better especially coming up to the U23 tournament in China."

Haziq Nadzli, Malaysia, 2017 KL SEA Games
(C) Getty Images

Ong is also aware that the hurt and suffering is probably bigger on Haziq and his 19-year-old shoulders. As such, the 47-year-old coach is hoping to handle the difficult situation well, looking for ways to ensure that the "scar" does not act as a deterrent or a hindrance.

"The scar will be there forever, throughout his career. But you must know that he's young. We cannot look at the mistakes that he had done instead of looking how we can build his confidence back.

"Like I always said, these players need guidance. When they make mistakes, we cannot straight away blame them, we need to motivate them. Of course, not only him. I believe that when you lose, you always lose as a team and not as an individual. Same goes when we win. With his mentality, I believe he can come back strongly."

Since the defeat, the players have returned to their respective clubs and endured different outcomes for their clubs. Some have won trophies while others have faced relegation. Some like Syamer Kutty Abba, Nor Azam Azih, Adam Nor Azlin, Safawi Rasid, Matthew Davies and Syafiq Ahmad have also earned the nod of the senior Malaysia team.

That is exactly the type of recognition that Ong wants his players to crave for, to never settle for anything as long as they are active players. The experienced coach knows that the coming tournament in China could also pave the way for these players in their future domestic involvement.

"When they play in the AFC U23 next year, there will be many scouts attending and that is what I'm aiming for. There are a few leagues now who want to implement a Southeast Asia player, so there's always opportunity for you. So not only thinking about being in the national team, but thinking bigger.

"I managed to talk to Syamer and Adam for a while before they got called up that day. It's good for them to go. At the end of the day, it will give them a good exposure and benefit us in AFC. Whether they play or not, it'll be good for us.

"When they play in the senior team, they are playing against the best of each country and when they come back to play U23, they should come back strongly. And they should be our core players. I hope that they can. The only thing I hope is that they don't get carried away."

The U23 squad is expected to convene to start the training and preparations for China 2018 on Monday. Some players would have had more break compared to the others. It is a period of the season in Malaysian football when teams are still trying to figure out their squad for the coming season and preparing for pre-season work.

Not a club coach but Ong will have to do the same for his players when they report for training before flying out to South Korea for further acclimatisation work prior to starting the tournament with a match against heavy favourites, Iraq.

Safawi Rasid, Malaysia
(C) Asiana

"They (those that went to Buriram) had about two weeks break. That is why I didn't want to call the players too early. That's the best time to get them because the league is still closed and it's pre-season. So that I can improve a lot in terms of our tactical to play against much better teams.

"It will be pre-season and the best thing is when I start in December, most of the teams will be in their pre-season as well. So the teams and the players will then get the same timing as what they want. When we finish in China, it will be the end of January and the league start one or two weeks after that.

"So they will have a few days to juggle with their players without having to worry about their fitness. For any team participating in the league, pre-season is very very important. The teams will be playing friendly matches in January as well but now these players will have a minimum of three good international friendly.

"I planned my training according to most of the clubs when they are starting their pre-season. So the first 10 days, obviously they are going to go through a lot of conditioning but at the same time I must look at tactical. To try a few players in few positions with friendly matches."

Look out for the second part tomorrow where Ong touch base with Malaysia's chances in China and on the 2018 Asian Games.

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