Friday, April 15, 2016

The impossible dream


They say it all begins with a dream. But for the Malaysian, now ranked NO 174 in Fifa's ranking - their worst ever - the World Cup looks an impossible dream.
It was clear at the 2018 Fifa World Cup Russia Asian qualifiers final round draw, held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, that the 12 teams who made it - Iran (placed 42 in the world), Australia (50), Korea Republic (56), Japan (57), Saudi Arabia (60), Uzbekistan (66), United Arab Emirates (68), China (81), Qatar (83), Iraq (105), Syria (110) and Southeast Asia’s only team, Thailand (119) - are miles ahead.
Malaysia are the 32nd best  team in Asia.
The battle is not over for the top 12 Asian qualifiers.
They have been drawn into two groups of six teams based on their seeding and will play at home and away with each other before the top two in each group qualifies for the World Cup.
The two third-placed teams in the respective groups then play in an Asian play-off on a home-and-away basis and the winner gets to play in the Inter-Continental play-off with a CONCACAF team over two legs for a possible extra Asian slot in the World Cup.
True, the 12 teams have a long journey ahead of them but then Malaysia were eliminated in the preliminary Round 2, whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE qualified for the final round from Group A.
As the record shows, a total of 12 different nations have represented Asia at the World Cup since the tournament began in 1930.
It has been a steady improvement with Asia’s representatives going head to head with the world's finest opponents.
The involvement of Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in the 1938 World Cup was auspicious, mainly because of its status as the continent’s first-ever appearance in the competition. However, the Southeast Asians were eliminated in the first round by Hungary.
It took almost another two decades before the continent was represented again, with Korea Republic progressing to the finals in Switzerland in 1954.
But Asian football truly arrived twelve years later in England when DPR Korea qualified for the quarterfinals and gave a scare to legendary Eusebio and his Portuguese team-mates and a run for their money before bowing out.
Through the 70s and 80s, Asia’s presence at the World Cup was guaranteed, with the allocation of places increasing from one to two for 1986 as Korea Republic for the first time since 1958, to be joined by Iraq.
While Iraq are still chasing a follow-up appearance at the tournament, the Korean Republic has become a consistent qualifier since, including co-hosting the tournament with Japan in 2002.
But for all the Korea Republic’s consistency, it was debutants Saudi Arabia who in 1994 became the first team since DPR Korea to qualify for the knockout stages of 16 teams.
Eight years later marked the best for Asia when Korea Republic and Japan co-hosted, with both reaching the knockout phase for the first time.
Japan were eliminated in the second round by Turkey who reached the semifinals, where they were joined by Korea Republic team for the best-ever performance by an Asian team to date at the World Cup.
These performances by Japan and Korea was followed in 2010 by another outstanding showing , as both reached the knockout phase – but this time on foreign soil – only to eliminated by Paraguay and Uruguay respectively.
Despite the quartet of Japan, Korea Republic, Australia and Iran failing to hit the heights in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, it is now hoped that in Russia the Asian teams will shine and fare better.
Yes, Korea and Japan feared Malaysia not too long ago, but they have gone to a different level leaving Malaysia to become minnows.
Even war-torn Syria have reached the final despite having to play all their second round home matches away.
Where does that leave Malaysia?
Continuing to come up with short team programmes and having false hopes that a miracle will happen to see Malaysia football bloom overnight.
Yes, there is said to be hope with the National Football Development Programme (NFDP) which will be the savior of Malaysian football in the future.
But against a backdrop of China FA having announced an ambitious football development plan that envisions 50 million players joining in the game by the end of the decade and the transformation of the country into a ‘ first-rate major footballing power’ by the middle of the century, Malaysia will probably still be licking its wounds.
Let’s not forget the rest of the top teams in the Asian qualifiers in the final rounds who are leap and bounds ahead of Malaysian football in performance, administration, professionalism, coaching staff, facilities and in almost every aspect of the game.
Probably, all Malaysia can take consolation is that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) headquarters is at Bukit Jalil and the secretary-general is a Malaysian – that’s about the best Malaysia can be proud off.
AFC has had a Malaysian as general secretary since the days of Datuk Peter Velappan, Datuk Paul Mony Samuel, Datuk Alex Soosay and now Datuk Windsor Paul John who assumed his duties in December after being deputy general secretary from August 2013.
The 55-year old Windsor conducted the draw on Tuesday, and held court with finesse, confidence, professionalism and knowledge of the teams without any notes or tele-prompter.
And it was no surprise, for the former teacher, football coach, administration and management instructor, development, competition and technical officer, has had vast experience including his World Cup and Olympic stints.
The father of three – two girls and a boy – was the World Cup South Africa 2010 chief coordinator, World Cup general coordinator in 2002, 2006 and 2014,
Fifa Club World Cup General Coordinator (2006, 07, 08, 11), Fifa Confederations Cup (2009, 2013)
Fifa U17, U20 and Futsal World Cups (2000-2011) and Olympics (2004, 2008 and 2012).
Winsdor has also been credited to have implemented various infrastructure football projects in South East Asia, East Asia and West Asian countries under Fifa’s development programme. He has also created of long term development plans for Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Maldives and DPR Korea.
Under the Fifa development programme he was also responsible for assessment, planning and launch of grassroots projects for China, Thailand and Myanmar in 2009.
It is indeed a crying shame with a Malaysian with so much football knowledge and AFC at our doorsteps, Malaysian football has not benefited from it.
We will probably have to resign ourselves to continue dreaming that a miracle will happen to save Malaysian football.

TONY is a sports
journalist with more than
three decades of experience
and is passionate about
local sports.
He can be reached at
Twitter: @tmariadass​

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