BY DARREN GOON
The 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup may have been the tournament’s eighth edition, but in the eyes of Malaysians it will always be number one. Since Harimau Malaya’s runner-up finish in the cup’s inaugural edition in 1996, they had only made it as far as the semi-finals, watching as Thailand, Singapore, and even Vietnam filled their trophy cabinets.
But 2010 was different. A year earlier, coach Datuk K. Rajagopal had led the national Under-23 team to their first SEA Games gold medal in 20 years, before qualifying for the second round of the 2010 Asian Games a month before the start of the AFF Suzuki Cup.
With most of the victorious Under-23 players absorbed into the senior squad by then, they had had their first taste of success, and everyone from the fans, to the officials, to the players themselves were optimistic, and confident that the team would make an impact at Southeast Asia’s premier football tournament.
But luck was not on their side. The draw for the group stages pitted them against regional giants Thailand (who had reached five of the tournament’s seven finals, winning thrice) and perennial rivals Indonesia, one of this edition’s co-hosts. Even Group A’s minnows, Laos, were qualifying round winners, and no pushovers. That the Group A matches would be held at Indonesia’s intimidating 88,000-capacity Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, only added to the obstacles facing Harimau Malaya.
Sod’s law dictated that Malaysia would open their campaign against the hosts, and despite opening the scoring through a Norshahrul Idlan Talaha volley, Indonesia roared back to win 5-1, pulling apart the Malaysian defence with quick passing and accurate crosses.
Next up was Thailand, who drew 2-2 with Laos in their opening match. Sharbinee Alawee was dropped after that five-goal thrashing, with Khairul Fahmi Che Mat starting in his place. The War Elephants dominated proceedings, but Malaysia’s defence fared better on this occasion to earn a 0-0 draw, and their first point of the campaign.
At that stage, Indonesia had already qualified for the semi-finals, topping the group with a maximum six points from two games, scoring 11 goals along the way. The final round of games saw the three remaining teams still mathematically able to join the hosts in the next phase. Malaysia faced Laos in a must-win game, and win they did, despite conceding an early goal thanks to Lamnao Singto’s header. Amri Yahyah scored a brace, while defensive mistakes resulted in late goals by Amirulhadi Zainal, Norshahrul, and Mahali Jasuli as Harimau Malaya romped to a 5-1 victory, and qualification for the semi-finals, where they would face Group B winners Vietnam.
As hosts of the first leg, Malaysia knew that they had to make home advantage count against the defending champions. The 45,000 fans that turned up to cheer their team on saw Khairul Fahmi again in inspired form, making several excellent saves, notably from Nguyen Vu Phong. Malaysia took the lead on the hour mark after Safee Sali’s glancing header from Safiq Rahim’s free-kick slipped out of the goalkeeper’s grasp. Twenty minutes later, he followed up a long-range shot to score his second of the tournament, giving Malaysia a 2-0 win and the advantage going into the second leg.
A capacity crowd greeted Malaysia at the My Dinh National Stadium in Hanoi, and Vietnam pummeled the visitors for the full 90 minutes, with only the heroics of Khairul Fahmi again keeping the tie goalless. In their desperation, midfielder Pham Thanh Luong was sent off after receiving his second yellow card for simulation, but the Malaysian held on to reach their first AFF Suzuki Cup final in 14 years.
As luck would have it, who else would Malaysia play in the final, but Indonesia? The match was halted in the 53rd minute by referee Masaaki Toma after Indonesia goalkeeper Markus Haris Maulana complained of lasers being shined at his eyes by the home fans. After the restart, two moments of brilliance by Norshahrul along the byline set up the first two goals by Safee and Ashaari Shamsuddin, before Safee scored his second off a header from Sabre Abu’s cross.
With a 3-0 lead, Malaysia returned to the Gelora Bung Karno for the second leg of the final. Despite the intimidating atmosphere, Khairul Fahmi did wonderfully yet again, even saving a first half penalty. Against the run of play, Safee burst through to score his fifth of the tournament in the 54th minute, but Indonesia hit back through Mohammad Nasuha and Muhammad Ridwan to win 2-1 on the night. However, Malaysia triumphed 4-2 on aggregate, and the trophy was theirs for the first time in their history.
|Matchday 1: December 1, 2010|
|18:00 MYT||Thailand 2 - 2 Laos||Gelora Bung Karno|
|20:30 MYT||Indonesia 5 - 1 Malaysia||Gelora Bung Karno|
|Matchday 2: December 4, 2010|
|18:00 MYT||Thailand 0 - 0 Malaysia||Gelora Bung Karno|
|20:30 MYT||Indonesia 6 - 0 Laos||Gelora Bung Karno|
|Matchday 3: December 7, 2010|
|20:30 MYT||Indonesia 2 - 1 Thailand||Gelora Bung Karno|
|20:30 MYT||Malaysia 5 - 1 Laos||Jakabaring|
|Matchday 1: December 2, 2010|
|18:00 MYT||Singapore 1 - 1 Philippines||My Dinh|
|20:30 MYT||Vietnam 7 - 1 Myanmar||My Dinh|
|Matchday 2: December 5, 2010|
|18:00 MYT||Singapore 2 - 1 Myanmar||My Dinh|
|20:30 MYT||Philippines 2 - 0 Vietnam||My Dinh|
|Matchday 3: December 8, 2010|
|20:30 MYT||Vietnam 1 - 0 Singapore||My Dinh|
|(:30 MYT||Myanmar 0 - 0 Philippines||Hang Day|
|Leg 1: December 15, 2010|
|17:30 MYT||Malaysia 2 - 0 Vietnam||Bukit Jalil|
|Leg 1: December 16, 2010|
|20:00 MYT||Philippines 0 - 1 Indonesia||Gelora Bung Karno|
|Leg 2: December 18, 2010|
|20:00 MYT||Vietnam 0 - 0 Malaysia||Bukit Jalil|
|Leg 2: December 19, 2010|
|20:00 MYT||Indonesia 1 - 0 Philippines||Gelora Bung Karno|
|Leg 1: December 26, 2010|
|19:00 MYT||Malaysia 3 - 0 Indonesia||Bukit Jalil|
|Leg 2: December 29, 2010|
|20:00 MYT||Indonesia 2 - 1 Malaysia||Gelora Bung Karno|