Adib Zainudin and his team mates were treated to a hero's return upon reaching Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday evening. The national under-23 team captain and his team were feted by that included Youth and Sports Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin.
Malaysia qualified for the finals of the AFC U23 Championship that is scheduled to be played in China in January of 2018. This after a surprise top place finish in a group that comprised of host Thailand, Indonesia and Mongolia.
After beating Mongolia in the final group match, Malaysia had to wait anxiously for the result between Thailand and Indonesia to fall in favour of them. Fate duly obliged and just like on the first day of the group matches, heavy rain made the pitch worse for wear and caused favourites Thailand from playing their usual game.
A draw there worked in favour of Malaysia, enabling the Young Tigers to qualify automatically by being group winners. A huge slice of luck that Adib himself doesn't deny.
"Yes, that's [luck] the reality of it. Playing on a wet pitch made it hard for Thailand to play well and maybe that's our luck. But we are still proud of what we have achieved but this doesn't mean we should be contended just by qualifying," said Adib.
Having started two of the three matches played there, Adib knows that the defeat to Thailand was a blot on the copybook and that the team still need to improve if they are to best the same opponent in the upcoming South-East Asian (SEA) Games.
The War Elephants handed Malaysia a 3-0 beating in the second group match which almost knock the team out of the path to China. Being placed in separate groups in the SEA Games, Malaysia could well face Thailand in the final but the result isn't a foregone conclusion yet for Adib.
"We have another assignment which is the SEA Games and we need to be better in order to help the country win the gold medal. We know Thailand are ASEAN giants but what we need to focus on is our game and our motivation because they are a team of good quality," added Adib.
As luck would have it, the way the results were, Malaysia would still have qualified for the finals had Thailand won against Indonesia, by virtue of being one of the best six runners-up in the entire qualifiers.