BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The resignation of Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada as Malaysia head coach last week capped one of the worst years experienced by the Malaysia national team in recent years.
Beginning with a 0-0 friendly draw to the Philippines back in March under then head coach Dato' Ong Kim Swee, Vingada would then take over in May and guide the Harimau Malaya to six defeats and one draw, including five Asian Cup qualification matches.
Malaysia under the Portuguese barely looked motivated enough to perform on the pitch, but it must not be forgotten that the Harimau Malaya had been plodding along well before his appointment.
Vingada's replacement, former assistant Tan Cheng Hoe, whose appointment was announced mere days after the post became vacant, now has a tough task to rebuild the squad, after a forgettable year that saw Malaysia tumbling to its worst ever position in the FIFA ranking, 174.
One thing the former Kedah coach needs to accept is that the previous squad; one that is composed of players who won the 2009 SEA Games gold medal and the 2010 AFF Cup under Datuk Rajagobal Krishnasamy, is past its due date already and needs to be dropped.
In Malaysia's last outing, two back-to-back Asian Cup qualification group matches against DPR Korea that ended in 4-1 drubbings, three of such players, most of them 30 years old or older, were called up; captain Safiq Rahim, and defenders Kunanlan Subramaniam and Fadhli Shas. At least seven more of them had been called up in the past 12 months or so. And not to mention, four of them, Safiq, Kunanlan, Amirul Hadi Zainal and Aidil Zafuan Abdul Razak, had stepped down from international football earlier in 2016, only to be recalled the following year.
Ironically, in shedding this cohort of players, Tan must emulate the same method that brought Rajagobal silverware in 2009 and 2010; by relying on a core of young players that has been playing together for some time.
Enter Malaysia U23.
The Young Tigers currently are led by Ong Kim Swee again, who had been replaced by Vingada as the senior team coach. Ong took the 'demotion' well, got straight to work and proved the Malaysian FA (FAM) wrong in replacing him. 2017 had been a glorious year for the coach and his squad, when they won silver medal at the Southeast Asian Games and qualified for the AFC U23 Championship finals in 2018.
Malaysia U23 during the Southeast Asian Games. Photo by Twitter @KL2017
For the side, they now have the finals next January, their debut in the continental competition, but no other major tournaments for the rest of 2018. And the tournament is also the last outing at the junior level for many of the squad members who are already 22 years of age at the time this article is written; such as Matthew Davies, Nor Azam Azih, Thanabalan Nadarajah and Ahmad Khairil Anuar Zamri. It is also good that a number of them have already been called up to the senior team this year, such as Azam, Khairil, Davies, midfielder Syamer Kutty Abba and defender Adam Nor Azlin.
After the tournament concludes, senior international friendlies should be arranged with these young players composing the majority of Malaysia's call-up list, so that Tan can start working with them as soon as possible, with the 2018 AFF Championship at the end of the year as a yardstick of the side's development.
This urgency is necessary as 2019 and 2020 will see the senior and junior national teams participating in the next cycle of continental competitions, as well as the next World Cup qualifiers.
In 2019, at the senior level, the 2022 World Cup qualifiers is expected to kick off, whereas Malaysia U23 will take part in the Southeast Asian Games as well as the qualifiers for the 2020 AFC U23 Championship.
In the following year, the next stage of the World Cup qualifiers, or the 2023 Asian Cup qualification, should begin, while the AFC U23 finals will be played. Most importantly, the finals are expected to double up as qualification to the 2020 Olympics as well. And at the end of the year, the 14th edition of the AFF Championship will take place.
Evidently, the U23 boys should be promoted to the senior team on a permanent basis at the start of 2018, if FAM wants to succeed in the next four years. Qualification for the 2022 World Cup may be a bridge too far, but the 2023 Asian Cup is not impossible.
But one possible snag in the arrangement that Tan and Ong need to work out early on is player availability in the tournaments and the preceding qualifiers, especially when Ong may be harbouring Olympic dreams. The Malaysia U23 boss however may have seen one possible solution to this, judging by the fact that he has called up five Malaysia U19 boys to join the training camp for the 2018 AFC U23 Championship finals.
Ong Kim Swee
MORE: TMJ gives full control to TCH on Malaysia NT matters | EXCLUSIVE: Wan Kuzain on playing pro soccer in US and his first ever Malaysia visit | Tan Cheng Hoe promoted to Malaysia national team head coach role | Vingada steps down as Malaysia head coach
And both Malaysia U23 and U19 have proven that they need to be made a more important part of the national team's future, judging from their achievements this year. Just like their U23 seniors, Malaysia U19 under head coach Bojan Hodak too have qualified for the AFC U19 Championship finals, also for the first time ever in 2018.
Whereas for Tan, if he does make the current U23 boys the core part of his team, he too needs to grow as a national team coach along with his men, to make sure that he delivers the results as well as the improvements desired by the fans.