The recently concluded AFF Suzuki Cup 2010 has brought not only a new champion to the biennial championship in the shape of Malaysia but also a whole new level of competitiveness.
The success for Malaysia, their first in the regional competition since its inception in 1996, reignited footballing passion across the country with fans hailing the re-emergence of the Malayan Tiger.
Such was the raw outpouring of support for the national team that Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak, the 2010 AFC Diamond of Asia winner, declared a public holiday following the 4-2 aggregate victory over Indonesia.
The unassuming K. Rajagobal is the man responsible for masterminding Malaysia‘s successful rebuilding since taking over in July 2009.
He has moulded his side into a highly-disciplined and competent unit, one far removed from the disastrous showing on home soil at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. After making history with his team, the former national team striker sat down with FIFA.com to shed light on the significance of the triumph, the team’s prospects and their goals for the years to come.
FIFA.com: Congratulations on Malaysia‘s achievement in winning the recent AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time. By doing so you broke new ground for the country’s football. What is your assessment of the victory?
Rajagobal: It was an encouraging victory for all Malaysians especially for the football fans. The young players played their hearts out throughout to achieve this, so for all of us this triumph is special.
Does this achievement kick-start the revival of Malaysian football and can the nation return to the heady days of the 1960’s and 1970’s when they were among Asia’s best?
Yes, this Suzuki Cup victory has brought hopes back to us and it indeed marks the revival of Malaysian football. Having said that, it may take at least another six to seven years for us to get back to the continental stage where we can compete against Asia’s best.
Will this Suzuki Cup triumph, at least partly, contribute to the recovery of the Malaysian league? After the slump in the 1990’s, is the local league rebuilding and heading in the right direction?
I think yes. The national league has improved over recent years and without foreign players in the domestic competition, the local league provides our young players with more chances to develop and emerge.
Malaysia appeared to be one of the most attack-minded sides during the recent Suzuki Cup, with Mohd Safee Mohd Sali striking five times to top the tournament scoring chart. As a former national team forward, was it a priority to enhance the team’s potency in attack?
The top priority is for the team to play as a unit but we did focus a bit on our attacking approach in preparation, adding more finishing training for the strikers.
Before this Suzuki Cup victory you had led the U-23 side to the SEA Games’ gold. Did that previous success lay the foundation for the senior team’s triumph?
The backbone of players from that Under 23 side constituted the core of the senior team that won the Suzuki Cup. We had thirteen players from the SEA Games squad who became the nucleus of the current national team.
Could you name a few of the key players who emerged during the successful campaign?
To name a few, our emerging starlets include midfield talents like skipper Safiq Rahim, Amar Rohidan, Subramaniam Kunanlan and Kandasamy Gurusamy. At the back we have Ahmad Muslim and Mohd Asraruddin, while spearheading the frontline is Norsharul Tahala.
No ASEAN team qualified for this month’s AFC Asian Cup, so does that mean the gap between your region and Asia’s best is widening? If so, what can be done to bridge the gap?
To keep the team competitive we should regularly play top teams from Asia and Europe alike and, to be exact, we must make the most of the international A-match days every month to arrange friendlies with good teams, to sharpen our form and gain experience.
What is the next goal you have set with the Malaysia eam?
After winning the regional title our next target is to have a strong side to qualify for the next Asian Cup in four years time.