Selangor Journal
The Harimau Malaya squad celebrate their win against Cambodia in a Tier 1 international match at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur, on December 9, 2022. — Picture by BERNAMA

Harimau Malaya shine in 2022 as Malaysia qualify for Asian Cup on merit

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 31 — Ending the country’s 42-year wait to qualify on merit for the 2023 Asian Cup has been Harimau Malaya’s best achievement in over four decades, breathing new life into the local football arena.

The incredible feat was achieved on June 14, 2022, when the national side coached by South Korean Kim Pan Gon, beat Bangladesh 4 – 1 in the final Group E match of the 2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, which was witnessed by 52,964 spectators.

Pan Gon, who was appointed in January to fill the vacancy left by Tan Cheng Hoe, guided the team to six points in the group, finishing in second, behind Bahrain.

Malaysia, who qualified as one of the top five runners-up in the group stage, lost 1 – 2 to Bahrain after kicking off their campaign with a 3 – 1 win over Turkmenistan, with both matches also taking place at Bukit Jalil.

The national team featured 13 players from Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), two players each from Petaling Jaya City and Negeri Sembilan FC and one player each from Terengganu FC, Selangor FC, Sabah FC, Sri Pahang, SV Zulte Waregem (Belgium) and Choburi (Thailand).

Malaysia did appear in the Asian Cup as co-host in 2007, but the last time they entered the competition on merit was during the 1980 edition in Kuwait.

At present, Pan Gon, along with 23 players who were mostly not involved in the Asian Cup qualifiers, are competing in Group B of the Asean Football Federation Cup (AFF) with the likes of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore.

While qualifying for the Asian Cup is no doubt the best achievement of the national team this year, the AFF Cup should be considered a platform for Pan Gon to expand the search for players to form the best squad for the 2023 Asian Cup scheduled to take place in Qatar in January 2024.

The improved performance of the national team under Pan Gon has also seen Malaysia climb nine rungs this year, from 154th in January to 145th in December.

It is a pity, then, that the senior team’s achievements could not inspire the Under-23 (U-23) squad, who performed underwhelmingly in the three competitions they participated in this year.

Brad Maloney’s men bowed out of the group stages in the AFF U-23 Championship in Cambodia in February, before returning empty-handed at the 31st SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam in May, losing the bronze medal match to Indonesia.

A month later, they failed to register a win in Group C of the U-23 Asian Cup in Tashkent, Uzbekistan — losing to 1 – 4 South Korea, Thailand (0 – 3) and Vietnam 0 – 2. Maloney subsequently left the team by mutual consent in July.

It was much better for the national Under-19 (U-19) squad, who emerged as champions of the AFF U-19 Championship by beating Laos 2 – 0 in the final at the Patriot Candrabhaga Stadium, Bekasi, Indonesia in July.

Meanwhile, the national women’s football team only managed to compete in one competition, namely the AFF Championship in July, with Jacob Joseph’s squad recording two draws and three losses in the group stage.

They did not appear at the 31st SEA Games following a decision by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).

The Jordan Football Association’s (JFA) women’s football unit head and assistant technical director Soleen Al-Zou’bi was recruited as the team’s Head Coach in December to replace Jacob.

At the domestic level, Johor Darul Ta’zim continued their impressive run by winning the Super League for the ninth season in a row, and topped it off by winning the ‘treble’ for the first time after lifting the Malaysia Cup by beating Selangor 2 – 1 in the final in Bukit Jalil, in November.

The Southern Tigers squad had earlier won the FA Cup, in addition to the Charity Shield at the start of the season.

JDT’s success was emulated by JDT II, who won the Premier League title.

JDT’s Brazilian striker Bergson Gustavo Silveira Da Silva emerged as the top scorer in the Super League with a record 29 goals, while the top scorer in the Premier League was Kuching City FC’s Abu Kamara with a total of 11 goals.

Although not as widespread as before, the problem of salary arrears still plagued some teams this year, forcing several parties including the Professional Footballers’ Association of Malaysia (PFAM) to intervene.

Overall, 2022 was a significant year for the country’s football, and the euphoria of qualifying for the 2023 Asian Cup will hopefully create a domino effect, right from the country’s grassroots level.

— Bernama

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