Alas, it is that time of the year in the Malaysian Sports Calender where everybody inevitably points fingers, assigning the blame to someone, each one more adamant than the other that somebody else is to blame for the latest fiasco. I am of course, talking about Malaysia's latest outing in the international footballing arena. In our first game against China, we got smacked 5-1, while in the second game, we got whipped 5-0. Even the most optimistic of us can't pray for anything else other than a 2-0 defeat to Iran.
Yes, it has been that bad.
And so, true to the wise words of Homer Simpson (Why blame yourself when it is easier to blame others?) everybody has started pointing fingers even before the tournament had ended. Heck, the blame game started even before the players finished their post-game shower after the first game.
The coach has blamed some players for under-performing. The FAM have blamed the coach for wrong team selection, and the Malaysian football fans (this is a term I shall use very loosely for reasons which I shall elaborate further) have been blaming everybody. The only party involved who hasn't blamed anybody are the players, but that is because they are at the bottom of the food chain, and hence do not have anybody to pass the buck to.
But the sad fact is that EVERYBODY involved has to take some amount of blame. And by 'everybody' I mean the Malaysian football fans as well. Contrary to what we would like to believe, we are the ones sitting on top of the food chain - not FAM, not Sultan Ahmad Shah.
And so let us start from the very bottom.
It is very easy to blame the players. After all, they are the ones who actually determine whether we get a result or not. They are the ones performing, they are the ones who are the professional athletes. But is it fair? If we were Italians or Brazilians, we have the right to blame the players. But we aren't. Our world ranking of 149 is testament enough that we simply are not good enough. Iran is ranked 47, Uzbekistan 58, and China 76. Anybody who expected any other result would either be an eternal optimist, or an extremely deluded soul.
What can they do if they simply aren't good enough? What can they do if they simply aren't big enough or fast enough? When we look at other national sports, we can easily point fingers at the badminton players for lacking the fighting spirit (Hafiz) or being too cocky (Koo Kien Kiet). But for our footballers, or most of them at least, their problem is their lack of skill.
Certainly, some of them can take the rap for throwing in the towel before the final whistle had blown. In the game against China, we conceeded a soft late goal because the players couldn't wait for the game to be over and fell asleep. Against the Uzbeks, we conceeded two late goals because their minds weren't on the game anymore (more on this later). And yes, a certain portoin of the blame has got to go to the mindset of some of them.
Our star player, Akmal Rizal once had a stint in Germany but was unable to hold a place in the team. He later claimed he was homesick, couldn't get used to the weather and the food, and hence came back to be the Jaguh Kampung he undoubtedly is today. He, along with a few others failed to make the most of the chance given to them to improve their game and came crawling back to their comfort zone.
Then, if you listen to the FAM president, Sultan Ahmad Shah, the coach Norizan Bakar is to blame for our disastrous start against China. He claimed Norizan had messed up with his team selection, leaving Indra Putra and K. Nanthakumar on the bench.
Sure, it is easy to hurl such accusations with the power of hindsight. It isn't just in Malaysian football, mind you. Coaches all over the world get blamed for wrong team selection all the time, but the fans fail to realise that the coaches sometimes make these decisions because they know more about the players than the fans do. In this case, it was very obvious that Indra Putra did not start because he just came back from a long injury, as did Akmal Rizal. Starting with two half-fit strikers is never a wise thing to do.
I do not wish to be in Norizan's shoes. I am totally and utterly convinced that being the head coach of our national football team is the worst job in the country. You have nothing to work with, you have everybody shitting on your head, and you are expected to perform miracles. It is not a job even God could do. Being a national team coach isn't quite the same as being the coach of a club team.
If Sir Alex Ferguson identified an area of his squad that was weak, he could go out and buy players to strengthen that area. If he fails to do that, or makes a wrong signing, his head would be on the chopping block, and fairly so. Encik Norizan Bakar has no such luxury. These players are the best of the lot. These are the players he has to work with whether he likes it or not, or whether they are good enough to face Iran. What do we expect him to do when none of our central defenders have the ability to control the ball and keep possession?
But of course, he still must take some blame for the drubbing. It was suicide to play 4-4-2 against technically and physically superior teams. Realistically, we had no chance of winning, but if the players could keep it tight and frustrate the opponent, we could have nicked something from a set piece (which we are bloody good at). In Jose Mourinho's words, we needed to 'park the bus in front of the goal'. We needed to play 4-5-1 and put 10 men behind the ball at all times. Hit them on the counter attack, hit them with a set piece. We could have at least put up some sort of fight if we made it to half time still level, even if it meant that their keeper didn't need to touch the ball once.
Then there is the favourite bash toy of the fans - the Football Association of Malaysia. Of course, it is simple enough to blame them. They are the ones who run the game in the country. When all goes pear shaped, they should take the heat. And rightly so, for many issues. We have a piss poor youth development programme. The national league is in shambles as are the the State FAs. They are the ones who are responsible for hiring the coaches, setting up the training facilities and scouting for talent so when everything fails, it is most convenient to blame the FAM and the involvement of politicians in the scene.
But politicians have always, always sat at the helm of the FAM. From our beloved Tunku Abdul Rahman right to the present day, the FAM president has always been a politician or a Sultan. And when you think about it, it is not as if the FAM has not realised that the current state of affairs is dire. They have - and they have taken countless number of steps to prevent it from declining further. They have revamped and restructured the league system countless of times in the last few years. In fact, it was the current FAM president Sultan Ahmad Shah, who turned the league from semi-pro to professional.
And when all conventional methods had failed, they tried unconventional methods but to no avail. They tried to piece together a team of youngsters to try to qualify for the 2000 Olympics. More recently was the silly MyTeam competition(not sure how much the FAM was involved in this - but still..) It was a sorry excuse of a scouting programme, but nonetheless efforts were made. What can you do if at the end of the day, when all you have are players that are simply NOT GOOD ENOUGH?
Which makes me wonder...
Everybody seems to ramble on and on about our so-called 'past glories' and how far we had sunk since those days. Just what kind of 'glory' are we talking about here?! We never made it to the World Cup and only made it to the Asian Cup final twice ever in 1976 and 1980, where we didn't even make it past the first round. We go on and on about how it was such a great achievement that we had qualified for the Olympics in 1972 and 1980, but if you need a short history lesson, here's one. Before 1984, Olympic football was for amateurs. Professionals weren't allowed to participate because FIFA was afraid that it would cheapen the World Cup.
And if you look at the timeline, it is obvious that our period of 'dominance' only lasted about 10 years - that is one whole generation of players. This is our equivalent of Portugal's Golden Generation. For Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto, read Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun and Arumugam. Malaysian football had never seen bigger stars and probably will never see bigger stars. Sometimes, as much as it belittles their achievements, the pure fluke of having a whole generation of great players growing up together and playing together will never be replicated. It was a one-off. Zainal Abidin Hassan and Dollah Salleh aside, there wasn't anybody to replace them, so in truth, Malaysian football had started its decline a long, long time ago.
And that brings me to the chief culprit in this whole football fiasco - the Malaysian football fans.
As I said earlier, that is a term I am forced to use very loosely because the sad fact is that Malaysians do not make good sports fans. We are 'glory hunters' in every sense of the term.
I never had the privillege to watch the great Mokthar Dahari. I never even had the chance to watch the 1989 SEA Games - the last time we actually won something. But the most common excuse people give these days is that we have had no success. It seems we only support our teams when they win, and abandon them when they lose. Sometimes I wonder whether we deserve world class athletes. In squash and bowling we have world champions, world beaters, but we do not support them much. Instead of watching Nicol's games, all we do is pick up the papers the next morning and go, "Oh, Nicol won again. Cool!" and then go back about our business as usual.
The stadium was less than one-third full for the China game and absolutely deserted for the Uzbekistan game. Where was everybody?! How can we complain that our team isn't performing well when we do not even bother to turn up to support them? As football fans, we all know the 12th man phenomenon is extremely important. But instead of being the 12th man for our own national side, we only serve to demotivate them.
Picture this. You are playing for your country. You are already losing 3-0 and fighting with your inner demons, trying your hardest not to cave in. Nothing has gone right for you all night. You have been outplayed and outgunned. The only thing left that can possibly motivate you is the knowledge that you are representing your country and that you do not want to let your fans down. And then you look up and look around you and find the whole stadium is deserted. And whatever 'fans' you actually have are morons who turn up just to boo and hiss at you. The fans who, instead of supporting you and your teammates, turn up with banners to proclaim how much you suck. Fuck it. What is there to play for?!?!
And it's not just the Asian Cup we are talking about. Our players have ZERO experience playing in the big stage. Was it any wonder why we lost to Singapore in the penalty shootout in the ASEAN Cup the other day? The famous Kallang Roar turned our boys' knees into jelly. They were faced with a full-house stadium screaming and taunting them. It is safe to say that most of them, if not all of them have never, ever played in front of a packed stadium before. Nobody supports the local league.
Nobody bothers going to the stadiums to watch the league games. We all thought that the league was getting better a couple of years ago when people flocked to the Shah Alam stadium to watch Selangor. Turns out they were all Indonesian workers going to see Bambang Pamungkas. Imagine that sort of patriotism - hoardes of them going to watch a football game, week in week out just because their fellow countryman played for a team which they should have no alliegience to.
We blame the FAM for not being able to deliver. We expect them to devise a programme that can bring us success in 5 years. And when they try to do that, they inevitably fail - because we are too impatient. You cannot change the whole system in 5 or even 10 years. The whole system needs a revamp. Somebody needs to say to them, "We give you 15 years. Tear up everything. Start from scratch." But no, we expect results and we expect them today.
And without us, without the football fans watching the games, where on Earth are you going to find sponsors? You can talk about youth development and all that boo-hah but if there is no sustained interest from the public, where do you propose the money comes from? Have a nice look at the American NCAA. I never went to an American university but I hear the fan base is fanatical. The games are even broadcast live on TV and people tune in to watch! Then ask yourself if you would ever consider watching Malay College Kuala Kangsar versus Kolej Tunku Jaafar.
Somebody I talked to just now was ranting about how Malaysian football sucks (it really is the flavour of the day). I asked him if he watched the game and he replied he didn't. "What for support them la? They suck so bad!" I replied, "So why do you care if they suck if you don't bother supporting them?" I remember our Rugby Sevens team getting smacked 73-0 a few years ago. But nobody gave a hoot about it because nobody cares about Rugby Sevens. Similarly, if you don't care enough to watch the game, why do you care enough to complain?
Who in their right mind wants to play for the national team at the moment? Who in the right mind wants to be a footballer in Malaysia? You play in front of empty stadiums, get a crappy paycheck and at the end of the day get a barrage of abuses no matter how hard you play. People like Hardi Jaafar and Hairuddin Omar spent the last two games running after every ball, back tracking when the team needed them, playing to their strengths but instead of hearing people say, "At least you did your best" they get people spitting all sorts of abuse on them. That is assuming the public even knows their names, which I am willing to wager a jug of beer that none of you reading this can name our Starting XI.
Don't complain unless you are part of the solution.
Start going to the local league games. When we fill up the stadiums, sponsors will come. The money will inject just a little bit more glamour into the game. The players would know that they have something to play for. The kids, the 8 year old kids will look at footballers as their idols and that might inspire them to want to be footballers when they grow up. How do you propose a youth development system when the kids do not want to be part of the system in fear that they will grow up into a dead career?
The blame can go to the players, the coaches and the FAM. But as the fans, we must take responsibilty for abandoning the game in the first place, and then expecting it to flourish after we ignored it for years.