Congratulations to the National Football Development Programme (NFDP) Under-13 team’s victory in the Iber Cup in Spain. But let's not get carried away and start blowing our own trumpet prematurely.
Let us look at the triumph from the right perspective and move forward to work even harder.
Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, the prime mover in the NFDP, rightly said that there is still a lot of work to be done. He has asked that this team not be glorified before they reach their full potential.
But the spin doctors of the programme have gone overboard. They have taken to the social media to crow about the victory, as if a world championship has been won, and taking local sports critics to task. Above all, the attacks have become personal in an effort to justify the effectiveness of the NFDP.
Of course, highlighting the success of the Iber Cup team is part of a publicity campaign to secure additional funds for the programme. That is understandable. But let's not give the general public false hopes.
For starters, most taxpayers would not even have known that a team was sent to Spain. But the moment the team beat Sporting Lisbon’s Under-13 team, the news and video clippings were blasted everywhere in the print and electronic media.
Of course, the NFDP's officials will claim that the news was on social media. Yes, this is another stance the Ministry of Youth and Sports seems to have adopted these days – giving little importance to the print and electronic media.
It seems to believe that social media is the way to go as it reaches the targeted audience. Sure, that is the ministry's prerogative, but let's not forget that the general public still reads newspapers and watches television.
I am just wondering, if the team had not done well in Spain, would that fact have emerged in the news?
Last year, our Under-12 team played nine matches in Germany and Austria, including against the junior team of Bayern Munich that the NFDP's project director Lim Teong Kim had coached before. We lost six of the matches.
Was there any news of that adventure? No. Sure, many of the teams we played against were Under-13, so the losses are acceptable. But why all the secrecy?
Remember that the NFDP team is a national squad playing against the clubs. But first, it is not my intention here to undermine the benefits of the NFDP. Without doubt, it is the best thing that has happened to the development of the game in the county. But it cannot be seen as a personally owned entity but a national scheme in which the governor of the game – FA of Malaysia – must play a role.
Coming back to the spin doctors, their tweet comparing Sporting Lisbon's 7th place among clubs in the world with Malaysia’s 162nd was cheeky. How can they compare apples and oranges?
As for Sporting Lisbon, it is their senior team that is ranked, not their Under-13. Secondly, it is not known which Under-13 Sporting Lisbon team was in Spain. In Europe, clubs have several teams in the age groups.
Thirdly, during the summer holidays, many youth tournaments similar to Iber Cup are held at about the same time all over Europe and clubs send several of their teams to these tournaments.
In the 1980s, under the leadership of Tan Sri Elyas Omar, Kuala Lumpur FA used to send their youth teams for the Gothia Cup in Sweden and they won several of the age-group tournaments.
Several of those KL youth players went on to play for the senior team and eventually the national team.
The Gothia Cup is the largest international youth football tournament held annually in Gothenburg, Sweden. It is open to both boys and girls aged 11 to 19 and sees the participation of 1,600 teams from 70 nations.
The Iber Cup is also an important world youth football tournament that attracts 600 teams from 50 countries. Famous teams like FC Porto, SL Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Liverpool FC, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus, to name but a few, compete in it.
But at least 12 countries organise similar tournaments and among the top tournaments are Lisbon Cup (Portugal); Versilia Cup (Italy); Donosti Cup, San Marino Cup, Madrid Cup (all Spain), Gothia Cup (Sweden), Great Wall Cup, Beijing (China), Dana Cup (Denmark); Keelee International Cup, Livrpool/Knowsley tournament (England); Galway Cup (Ireland) and Haarlem Cup (Holland).
The point is, the Under-13 squad's achievement is a good start. They are now competing in the Iber Estonil, the Portugal tournament that began on Monday, and have qualified for the second round after beating Segeltorp IF 2-1, SC Linda-a-Vella 3-0 and thrashing Dragon Force Lisboa 7-0 in their group.
But winning an Under-13 tournament will not change Malaysian football's fortunes overnight. We have seen success at world youth level in hockey, badminton, squash and even bowling, but when it came to the senior level, we failed to live up to the early promise.
Basically, it is all about sustainability and progressing as the players grow older and for that, we need excellent coaching, competition and, above all, the right attitude.
Sending players overseas is possibly an answer but whether Europe is the right place is doubtful because of the mentality of our players. Many have gone there, only to return because of problems with the food, the cold weather, tough training and a host of other reasons.
Teong Kim is an exception; he had the desire to make it to the top and was prepared to make sacrifices.
Maybe, sending players to top Asian teams could be the answer.
So, as we chart the destiny of Malaysian football, a real test for the Under-13 team would be to qualify for the Under-17 Youth World Cup to be held in India in 2017.
There are still many areas that the NFDP needs to improve on, for example, the selection of players, the welfare of the coaches and players, salaries, overall quality and accountability.
Until then, let's not build up our hopes, only to be disappointed in the end.