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The rise and fall of Malaysia - How Harimau Malaya went from Asia Cup regulars to eternal strugglers

5:42 PM MYT 18/05/2020
Malaysia national team
Once able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in Asia, positive signs are beginning to show for Malaysia after a period of mediocrity.

Malaysia as a country is mad about football, from young to old and the one of the few things that transcend the racial boundaries that is still seen in this country. But the huge following and support for the sport is disproportionate to the stature of the national team - Harimau Malaya.

The national team was ranked 75 in the FIFA rankings back in August of 1993 but has plummeted down the rankings since. Just two years ago in March of 2018, the team hit rock bottom following a spell under the charge of Eduado Vingada when Malaysia was ranked 178.

Gone were the days when Malaysia could count themselves as among the top 10 in Asia as can be seen in the 70s when Asian Cup participation was a norm rather than an outlier. Two consecutive tournaments in Iran (1976) and Kuwait (1980) saw Malaysia take their place among the elites in the continent. 

That was a period in the history of the sport in this country when the league and players were not even professionals. Everyone were amateurs and held day jobs while at the same time contributing to the country on the pitch. 

But they could hold their heads high when they bested South Korea in the qualification to the final tournament in 1976 and held their own against the mighty China in the finals. Four years later under the tutelage of Karl-Heinz Weigang, Malaysia were a whisker away from reaching the Asian Cup knockout stage. 

Santokh Singh, Soh Chin Aun, Mokhtar Dahari and co earned themselves a place in the folklore of Malaysian football for their efforts not only in the Asian Cup but also in helping Malaysia reach the Olympic Games during the same period, then not yet an under-age competition. 

It was a full nine years after this special batch of players performed wonders that a semi-pro league was formed in the country, failing to capitalise on the wave of optimism that the 70s team had on the people. 

But the arrival of the new league also brought about bad news as it enticed the unwanted side of football - the bookies. It all came to a head in 1994, just five years into the semi-pro era when big name players and officials were incriminated in bribery and game-selling. 

That single event had a great impact on the national team because the players that were banned from football were among the best the country had produced in years. Azizol Abu Hannifah and Matlan Marian are undoubtedly the biggest two stars that had to be forgotten by the game. 

Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) looked outward to half the slide as Malaysia struggled to even come close to qualifying for the Asian Cup but the likes of Allan Harris, Trevor Hartley, Claude Le Roy and Josef Venglos made very little headway and thus found their time with the national brief and not very successful. 

Innovations continue to come from the governing body to halt the slide suffered because of the bribery scandal and in 2004, a professional league came into play with the introduction of the Super League. It heralded a new beginning but while one specific high, it was otherwise another period of mediocrity for Malaysia. 

Everyone remembers the 2010 AFF Championship success under K. Rajagopal and rightly so. The win was achieved by putting faith in a group of youngsters who went on to produce an outstanding run in the tournament after starting on a jittery approach. But it was like history repeating itself 30 years on from 1980 as FAM could not build on the success and the team went spiralling into another period of scant achievement. 

Vingada's time with Malaysia was an unmitigated disaster but there appears to be light shining through at the end of the tunnel, two years on from his departure. His previous assistant in Tan Cheng Hoe has assumed the vacanted role with some measure of success and the team has been on an upward trajectory since he took over.

The former Kedah player and coach has not only brought back the optimism for the national team but has also worked incredibly hard to introduce a style that is also pleasing on the eye. Gone are the constant long balls and tedious approach to a game. When fans throng to the stadium these days, they get entertained without compromising the result. 

Seeing is believing and the run to the final of the 2018 AFF Championship has formed the bedrock of a remarkable start to the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualification stage where Malaysia have a great opportunity to once again reach at least the latter competition on merit. 

Every club and national team goes through cycles in their respective illustrious history  and indications are, the good times may be back for Harimau Malaya.