FOOTBALL fans anywhere make a world of a difference. Their feedback matters most and smart and sensible coaches usually play ball with them.
Yes, in modern-day football, listening seriously to football fans is simply part and parcel of a national coach’s mantra and Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe did just that when he daringly released 14 of his best players after the 2-2 with Mongolia – after being accused of favouritism!
“Football is a game for the fans as well; they deserve to have their say. So that is what we will do,” says the newly-appointed Cheng Hoe, a favourite of the fanatical fans, in a bizarre statement on Friday.
The 14 star-spangled players were from Malaysia Cup champion JDT (Johor Darul Ta’zim) and included captain Safiq Rahim, Ahmad Hazwan Bakri, Darren Lok, Nazmi Faiz Mansor, Safawi Rasid, Fadhli Shas, Fazly Mazlan, S. Kunanlan, Afiq Fazail, Syafiq Ahmad, Adam Nor Azlin, Haziq Nadzli, Natxo Insa and La’vere Corbin-Ong.
Nine of them featured in Thursday’s international friendly which saw Malaysia’s winless run continue since November 2016.
Immediately, without fear or favour, nine replacements – Zaquan Adha Abdul Razak of Kuala Lumpur, Shahrel Fikri Fauzi, (PKNP), Jafri Firdaus Chew and Shahril Saari (PKNS), Nor Hakim Hassan, Nazirul Naim Che Hashim and Syazwan Zaipol Bahari (Perak), Syawal Nordin (Kedah) and M. Kogileswaran (Pahang) – have been called up for training at the Wisma FAM in Kelana Jaya.
Few national coaches will ever take such a drastic move and Cheng Hoe’s decision has certainly raised some eyebrows as Malaysia have a match against Lebanon in Beirut for the last Asian Cup qualifier next Tuesday and against Nepal in a second friendly match on April 1.
The former Kedah coach said he made the drastic move to “fulfil the fans’ wish”.
“I thought the starting 11 that we picked against Mongolia were made up of the best players we have at our disposal. However, many fans accused us of favouritism because we have started with 90 per cent of JDT players,” he said.
“They have done their best and now we want to open up opportunities to the other players when we face Lebanon. That’s why we let all the JDT players go, perhaps that’s what the fans wanted.”
When asked if he intends to select players from the Malaysian Super League winners for future call-ups, Cheng Hoe did not want to elaborate.
“The only thing that matters now is the match against Lebanon. Although it’s a dead rubber, I still want to make sure that we come back with a good result. That’s my duty as a coach, to make sure the team that I pick give their 100 per cent in a match,” he said.
It is uncertain if JDT had wanted all their players back, but this predicament leaves the national team’s already miserable plight into further crisis. Cheng Hoe refused to elaborate further on his shocking decision, but is willing to accept any criticisms for his actions.
He makes it clear: “I have decided on this after the Mongolia game. I take all responsibility and will accept the fall if I have to.”
This is not the first time JDT players have returned home from national training camp. In September 2016, Darren Lok, Irfan Fazail and Zaquan Adha was recalled after reporting for training, with JDT and FAM boss TMJ stating he would only release his players four days before they were scheduled to take on Singapore and Afghanistan.
Equally shocked with Cheng Hoe’s decision, Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) secretary-general Datuk Hamidin Amin has asked the disappointed fans to be patient as the national coach is trying to build a squad to contend for AFF Suzuki Cup later this year.
“We must be realistic as it was the first match for the Harimau Malaya squad under the supervision of Cheng Hoe, who has just gathered the players for five days since last Sunday,” said Hamidin in a statement.
Cheng Hoe’s fate is the same as (Singapore’s) V. Sundramoorthy as he last recorded a win against Cambodia with a 3-2 win during the 2016 AFF Cup campaign in November that year and have now gone
matches without a win. Luckily, Sundramoorthy broke the shameful trend with a 3-2 win over Maldives at the SportsHub on Friday.
Malaysia ranks 178 (Singapore is No 172) in the latest FIFA roll-of-honour and the poor status last week forced FAM President to throw in the towel – another astonishing move that shocked Malaysian football.
PRINCE ALSO DISGRUNTLED
Almost one year after taking the helm of the FAM, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, who is more popularly known as TMJ (for Tunku Mahkota Johor), suggested the reason was due to the national team dropping in the FIFA ranking recently.
“Recently, the national team’s ranking fell three places and this is a very big failure,” he said referring to the latest FIFA ranking released today showing Malaysia was now ranked 178 in the 211-nation organisation. “With that being said, I think it is time that the president of FAM leaves football.”
In my opinion, the TMJ has been the refreshing ray of hope for Malaysian football since being named FAM president at the FAM Congress on March 25 last year.
“Ever since I took up the post of FAM president, I have restructured local football, lured sponsors to help contribute to football in the country and prepared a long-term plan for local football with the co-operation of LaLiga,” he says.
“I have fought for broadcasting rights for all competing teams in the Liga Malaysia to help them manage and strengthen their financial stability. History was made when for the first time, all the teams received between RM1 million and RM3 million so they did not have to be dependent on government funding.”
On the regional pitch, Malaysia’s Under-23, Under-19 and Under-16 teams also made history when they represented the country at the highest Asian age-group competitions.
Ironically, Cheng Hoe was the overwhelming fans’ favourite to replace Malaysia’s former Argentinian coach Nelo Vingada when he resigned earlier this year, having lost six of his seven matches in charge.
Cheng Hoe, who was Vingada’s assistant, was honest when he was appointed: “It’s a great honour to be Malaysia head coach and I thank FAM president Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim for having faith in me. Frankly I was shocked because I never expected it. It’s a big task and will be a challenge for me. Malaysia are also at their lowest point in international football.
“I hope I get the support of everyone and be given the time, which is crucial in making the change for the long-term.”
I salute Cheng Hoe. In my opinion, the 49-year-old has got balls and he is well aware of the challenges ahead to lift the poor state of Malaysian football, just as how Sundramoorthy feels in Singapore, with a string of unimpressive results.
Cheng Hoe, as I remember, was K. Rajagobal’s assistant during Malaysia’s successful period when they won the 2009 SEA Games and 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup. Both were historic moments as Malaysia had not won the Games since 1989 and had never won the latter.
He knows the spotlight will be seriously on him. The biggest question mark whether he has the charisma for the top football job, which is always a thankless occupational hazard.
I have been told the Cheng Hoe-Rajagobal pair were Malaysia’s longest serving in the dugout and surely he would have learned more than a thing or two from Rajagobal, who is among the best coaches Malaysia has produced.
Cheng Hoe’s recent track record has been eye-catching: He was credited for turning Kedah from a second tier side to MSL (Malaysia Super League) contenders in under three years after he joined midway through the 2014 season. Kedah won the Malaysia Premier League (MPL) title in 2015 and reached the Malaysia Cup final.
IMPORTANCE OF FOOTBALL FANS
If I’ve a final word, as I end, may I reiterate that people, from Brazil to Bhutan, England to Ethiopia, Malaysia to Maldives, live and die with the results of their favorite national teams and clubs, and for those who are in fact true fans, it is a lifelong bond.
The dedication of supporter groups each and every match makes the experience incredible. The soundscape of soccer is completely affected by the passion of the supporters. These devoted individuals are able to have an undeniable impact on the match atmosphere and match result through their effervescent chanting.
Football is, without an iota of a doubt, the most popular sport in the world. Just by looking at the number of fans and players of the game, it is clearly tough to argue against its world popularity. It is truly one of the few sports that can be found all around the world.
Reportedly, over one billion people tuned in to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina (which Germany won 1-0). A number like that proves its popularity around the world.
Part of what makes the sport so special is the passion and energy of the fans.
• Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based sports journalist who believes that in this bizarre decision to drop 14 of the best players, Tan Cheng Hoe has stuck his neck out for the fans – simply because their serious feedback matters in moving football forward.