Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia may not have yet made a major impact at global level, but the nation’s passion for football off the field is world class.
Kuala Lumpur’s cavernous near-90,000 capacity Bukit Jalil National Stadium is one of football’s great sights, with its relentless noise and colour matching up well to most venues around the world.
Malaysia’s home venue was filled to the brim on three occasions within a matter of weeks late last year to support Harimau Malaya (Malayan Tigers) during the AFF Cup.
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Now the nation’s enormous supporter base is being rewarded with results on the field. Malaysia came within touching distance of their second AFF Cup title only to narrowly miss regaining their Southeast Asian crown, suffering a a 3-2 aggregate defeat against Vietnam in the decider.
More recently, Harimau Malaya defeated Timor-Leste with a resounding 12-2 aggregate scoreline to win through to Round 2 of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar and AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
There has been recognition, too, via the FIFA World Ranking. Malaysia have recently moved up to 159th to reach a five-year high, and are now closing in on their best position for over a decade.
Malaysia’s AFF Cup campaign was highlighted by a memorable aggregate win over five-time regional champions Thailand.
It is an impressive feat considering Thailand’s strong recent record, highlighted by AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 Round of 16 qualification and a memorable draw against Australia during the last World Cup qualifying campaign.
Malaysia’s strong form helped push them into Pot 4 ahead of the Asian Qualifiers Round 2 draw last month.
The draw remarkably pulled out a quartet of Southeast Asian nations, leaving Malaysia to face Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as Asian Cup semi-finalists United Arab Emirates.
"This is the best possible draw,” said head coach Tan Cheng Hoe, who previously led local club Kedah to success and has been the architect behind Malaysia’s recent upswing.
“We are most familiar with the other ASEAN teams, especially Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Of course UAE are the toughest team and the favourites.
"Playing against ASEAN countries will ignite the rivalries and derbies, fans love this. But more importantly, it means not having to travel too far, and the time difference will not be too big and will not require extensive adjustment on the players’ part.”
There is widespread optimism among the Malaysia squad with an experienced core of the side, now supplemented by a promising group of younger players.
"I've been involved with the national team for four or five years now, including in the previous qualifying round and I think this is one of the strongest teams in a while,” said Malaysia centre-back Irfan Zakaria.
“The current selection features quite a few U23 players as well as the more experienced guys, and to me this is the right combination; we now are being guided by the seniors. It's a different team this time around.”
Long serving national full-back and Pahang skipper Matthew Davies shared similar sentiments: “We've got a few good results and fielded a lot of young players,” he said. “We're confident that we'll develop further as a team.”
Malaysia boast a proud football history, culminating in qualification for the 1972 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament on the back of wins over Japan and Korea Republic.
It was a success that was built upon with successive Asian Cup qualifications. Malaysia have more work to do before they are in a position to reprise those achievements, but recent results suggest Harimau Malaya are firmly on the right track.
Sources: FIFA.com, AFC
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