Ong's eyes on the future as Malaysia prepare to make debut
Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia will play in the 2018 AFC U23 Championship later this month having qualified for the Finals for the first time, as the nation seeks to build on an upturn in the performances of their youth teams that bodes well for the future.
Drawn to face Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in Group C, Ong and his team will face a tough challenge in their debut appearance, but Ong is taking an optimistic stance ahead of the Finals.
“It’s good to qualify for the first time and for us in some ways it is a matter of gaining exposure and experience,” says Ong, who worked with the senior national team before taking over the Under-23 side last year.
“Whatever we do in China, we can look at the weaknesses in our game and we can learn from them.
“But this is not only about the Under-23 team, but all of the youth teams in Malaysia. The youth group tournaments are always important and all of our teams have qualified for the AFC tournaments recently, so that shows we are making good progress.
“But we have to make sure we build up from here. If we develop our teams in this way, we can go forward.”
To prepare for the tournament ahead, the Malaysians have sought to do whatever they can to counter the impact of the cold conditions they expect to face in Jiangsu province during the competition, where temperatures are expected to be as low as zero degrees centigrade.
While that is a long way removed from the environment Malaysia’s players normally experience in their tropical homeland, Ong is confident the work done in the lead-up to the competition has prepared the players for what lies in front of them.
“We spent two weeks in Korea Republic and one of the main reasons for going was to allow the players to adapt to the conditions,” he said.
“It’s very, very hot in Malaysia so we had to make sure that the players knew what to expect when we go to China. This is new for the players but they all adapted very well and by the time we are in China I know we will be ready.
“But every team will face the same conditions and there were many reasons to go to Korea, not only to get friendly matches but to get used to the cold. The breathing system operates differently and the players have done some good work.”
Malaysia kick off their campaign on January 10 against Iraq in Changsha before meeting Jordan three days later and finish their Group C campaign with a clash against the Saudis on January 16, and Ong is hoping his team can extend their stay beyond the opening round.
“We don’t have to think about our opponents, we just have to go into these games thinking about ourselves and our performances,” he says.
“Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have all done well in this competition before so we know it’s going to be a challenge. The most important thing is to focus on our strengths and expose ourselves to playing against good opponents in match conditions. That’s important.
“Of course, results are always important in football and although I can talk about exposure and performances, it is important to win. We have a mission to qualify for the next round but we also have to be realistic.”