Kuala Lumpur: Go to any nightspot or restaurant in Malaysia and there is a good chance there will be a football match on. Often it is the English Premier League or a major European match, but make no mistake, when Malaysia play a big home international, there is only one focus for the nation of 32 million.
“It is incredible how much they love football in this country,” said Brendan Gan, Malaysian midfielder and one of the nation’s most popular footballers.
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Gan, who plays his club football for Selangor, is entering his fourth year donning the yellow of the Harimau Malaya (Malayan Tigers). Though born and raised in Sydney, Gan, who owes his Malaysian heritage to his Seremban-born father, is approaching a decade of football life in Malaysia. And he just can’t get enough.
The near-90,000 crowds which have been known to attend the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil in the capital Kuala Lumpur are routinely among the biggest globally in any FIFA World Cup cycle. Indeed, Gan was on the score-sheet – and provided a world-class assist - the last time Malaysia played an Asian Qualifiers tie at home as they picked up a crucial win over high-flying Thailand.
“I don’t think anything comes close to the Bukit Jalil,” Gan told FIFA.com, his every word dripping with energy at the thought of the experience. “It is quite steep and has a roof on it, so it really brings the crowd into it.
"I have honestly never seen anything like it in my life. It is quite crazy. People from overseas have come to experience the atmosphere, and many of them say it is the best thing they have ever seen in their life.
“From a player’s perspective, you hear a certain amount at most grounds, but you just can’t drown that noise out [at the Bukit Jalil]. I have been to South America and obviously football support is amazing there, but honestly this is a similar kind of thing," added the 32-year-old Gan.
An all-action wide midfielder by trade, Gan is as energetic on the field as he is on it. He studies for a commerce degree, makes semi-regular TV appearances and ran a health and fitness YouTube channel during a long injury break a few years back.
Malaysia are also still very much in the hunt to progress from a tough Group G of the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, for which the Southeast Asian side have not qualified since co-hosting the tournament in 2007.
“People are getting extremely excited about this,” Gan said of possible AFC Asian Cup qualification, emphasising the adverb. “And so they should, because it has been far too long.
“We are slowly getting to the point where we can take on a team like UAE, and actually dominate for 90 minutes. We are no longer seen as a pushover team anymore.”
That is no understatement. Malaysia currently sit above UAE in Group G, yet lost 10-0 against the same opponent just four years earlier in the same stage of the Asian Qualifiers.
“Coach Tan (Cheng Hoe) came in with the right approach, we have done quite well, there is a real fight in this team," Gan said. "When I go in to national team camp, you can really feel that hunger, focus and passion.”
So what growth has Gan witnessed in Malaysia during his decade-long odyssey?
“There has been a massive change that I have seen, and I think that is mostly down to the level of professionalism in the clubs," he said. "There is more money spent on facilities and grassroots. Now a lot of foreign coaches want to come here.
“You can see at youth level the (national) teams doing quite well now. There are some phenomenal players at grassroots level.
“The game is starting to get a better name for its self worldwide, especially with the team starting to do well, added on top of some of the atmospheres. The passion is definitely here and it is amazing to be a part of and quite life-changing.”
Sources: FIFA.com, AFC
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