I’ve got to admit, I might be dealing with a virtually insatiable passion for these early stages of World Cup/Asian Cup qualifiers. They always deliver. There are seemingly no exceptions. Last cycle, of course, began with Bhutan beating Sri Lanka in their first ever WCQ stand, prompting the noted globe-trotter of a journalist James Montague to declare it “one of the best things I’ve ever seen in sport”. Then the Guam story happened and sort of lasted.
This year we’ve had another rare Bhutan victory, the first Macao qualifying success in a long long while, and… a routine triumph from a country with a storied qualifying history dating back to 1960’s? Really, Tomas, are you really going to focus on that, of all results?
Well, for one, yesterday’s 7:1 thrashing of an – admittedly depleted – Timor Leste side was kind of historic in and of itself. It was Malaysia’s highest WCQ victory since 1993 (9:0 vs Macao) and their second highest ever. It was also the first time they scored at least seven times in a competitive game since 1999 Southeast Asian Games. And if you’d absolutely insist on a football-only competition, you’d have to go as far back as to 1996 AFF Championship.
Safe to say Malaysian football fans hadn’t had so much fun watching the senior national team in a long while. Just a quick peak at Malaysian Football Twitter was enough.
Speaking of fun… do you remember the time when their WCQ opponents were scoring against Malaysia for fun? Maybe the six-month period when Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the UAE put a total of 25 goals past four different Malaysian goalkeepers? I mean who could forget the game against the UAE when the coach at one point just outright snapped and started rotating his custodians, giving each of the trio a roughly 30-minute ride and kindly dividing the 10 goals into four, three and three? That was fun.
Who could forget indeed, more so considering that all this weird stuff took place only four years ago amidst the last World Cup qualifying cycle. So yeah, it must feel like a pleasant change for any follower of Malaysian football to see their team do the scoring for a change. In that same span, after all, Malaysia also faced Timor Leste, and beat them just 1:0 without so much as significantly outshooting the minnows in the process.
Talk about bouncing back in style. And talk about change, too.
From the full squad of 22 players whom Soccerway lists as eye witnesses of the mild embarrassment with Timor Leste back in October 2015, only Adam Nor Azlin – then a 19-year-old unused sub – played any role in yesterday’s match. That’s it, that’s the whole connection between the two squads, no veteran still around to provide an experienced presence in the dressing room. Nope, not even after you go through all the unused subs from yesterday you find a second link. Now, four years is a relatively long period, but however you slice it, this is a significant makeover of a senior national team.
Of course, the disastrous WCQ campaign made the makeover all the more justifiable. Still, the unequivocal decision to effectively forfeit what was remaining of the qualifiers after the horrendous 2015 – with a 2019 Asian Cup slot still very much on the table – and refocus instead on the U-23 national team that hasn’t even made it to the previous two Asian Cups could’ve been looked at with raised eyebrows; and sure was by some.
Just to quickly get you caught up on the timeline we are dealing with here: The World Cup part of the qualifiers closed with a loss to Saudi Arabia in March 2016. In June, there was a walkover of a de facto first round of the new, now purely Asian Cup qualifiers with Timor Leste (2x 3:0). Then there was a one-year gap before the final round got underway where Malaysia went 0-1-5, ranking only above pointless Bhutan and Macao. Some company to be in.
More importantly, though, in the middle of July 2017, a brief qualification for the upcoming U-23 Asian Cup took place, and Malaysia surprisingly topped their group ahead of Thailand. A certain Muhammad Safawi was controversially ommitted from the squad, and so he compensated with two November goals for the seniors, taking care of both Malaysian markers during that international break (two 1:4 losses vs DPRK).
Now 22 years of age, Safawi is a true star of Malaysian football bearing a telling nickname MVP – abbreviation that traditionally stands for
Malaysian Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals Most Valuable Player. He was awarded one such award for his exploits in Malaysian Super League in 2018 when “no other locals came close to his standard”, as Juan Bapakaw put it. Safawi was 21 at the time; since the award became a thing after the 2006/07 season, the youngest recipient had been then 24-year-old Norshahrul Idlan (2010), now one of the very few 30-somethings in the national team.
Quite fittingly, Safawi was yesterday’s unofficial MVP, too. And his very first contribution was beyond filthy:
That was only a beginning of his very comprehensive tormenting job on Timor Leste. Safawi started his career as a traditional winger, only later morphing into more of a wide forward, and that’s where he did the most damage yesterday, too – though sometimes from his “off side”, the left-hand side, where he’d soon blow past another defender only to slightly underhit the final pass. Right after, he missed a penalty, but he ended up compensating for that hiccup with two goals of his own and an extra assist picked up while pummeling his way through two players in central area before letting Norshahrul to take care of the rest.
The goals were spectacular and both notable for the sheer conviction on finish. The first one was particularly special for how quickly he adjusted his body to achieve the deadly release. Here’s a look from multiple angles:
The second one makes for one of the least stoppable shots from the point you’ll ever see:
A few things are on display here: we already learnt he’s a powerful, shifty dribbler, now we know he has a magnificent, strong left foot and loves to get into the box, be it as the leading man or as a threat arriving a little late yet right on cue. But what’s not on display here is a kind of a combination of all, amounting to a signature move of his akin to the one
Sardor Rashidov Arjen Robben became famous for: a quick cut inside and a tricky follow-up shot from long or mid-distance. Of course, those who’ve carefully followed the 2019 Asian Champions League might already know where I’m headed to with this intro:
Yup, that’s the goal scored to make a game vs Shandong Luneng a tad more interesting barely two months ago, making for a perfect prelude (along with a marker in each of his last two league starts) to what followed yesterday. This campaign was, by the way, Safawi’s debut one in the group stages of the Asian premier club competition, and even before it got underway, his name had already been touted by the official AFC website as one to watch. For all the good reasons, and for immense satisfaction he keeps on giving.
I mentioned Safawi wasn’t originally called up for U-23s. That was soon corrected after Frank Bernhardt departed (2016-17; now, very randomly, coaching a reserve team of a top-flight Estonian club) and he went on to star at the debut U-23 Asian Cup for his country, chipping in with two strikes on the way to the quarter-finals. Then, Safawi put two (game-winning) goals past the eventual winners from South Korea in the 2018 Asian Games group stages. And finally, at 2018 AFF Championship, he supported the great Malaysian run only two years removed from a group stage exit, and even scored in the final (loss to Vietnam). In the end, Safawi made it into the official team of the tournament as one of the four Malaysian players.
Like most players, Safawi has got his quirks, but that only makes him more of an MVP, to be honest. He often got animated at his teammates for not passing him the ball when he was on a hat trick yesterday. Safawi is also said to be quite superstitious, hence retracting his recent decision to take on the fittingly mercurial number 10 (seen on his ACL goal above) and going back to his original number 29 (and, err, number 11 for Malaysia). He’s also refusing to give up on his lucky grey/orange boots, despite getting sponsorship from Nike and having the option to always upgrade.
As long as he’s firing on all cylinders, though, there’s really no need for an upgrade. This report with as many as 5 talking points barely even mentions Safawi – that’s how ordinary such performances of his have become over time to regular onlookers.
Sure enough, Safawi has reportedly been getting some traction from South Korean and Japanese scouts after his showings on the biggest stage. While he’s signed through 2022 at Johor DT, he does have a release clause in his new contract from last year, set at a reported 15 million Ringgit (about 3,6 million USD), and likely making him the most expensive asset in the country.
Apparently, so far no Malaysian release clause has ever been activated. Mind making Safawi the first, anyone?
Naturally, Malaysia are not just Safawi. For one, both his goals were masterfully set up by Mohamadou Sumareh, who also allowed for another nail in the Timorese coffin, the second one, with a wonderfully weighed through ball (and eventual second assist). The Gambia-born wide midfielder is tall, lanky and incredibly strong on the ball. For the whole of yesterday, he basically became an immovable object for the struggling opposition.
Another player stealing some of the spotlight for himself was 20-year-old Akhyar Rashid, a second-half substitute who managed to chip in with the last goal. A lot of vertical running, a lot of questions asked from this guy. “For some odd reason (he) can’t last for more than 60 minutes,” one avid follower of Southeast Asian football tells me. “A natural trickster this one,” concludes Juan. Both sounds about right from what I saw.
<< Akhyar is by no means a finished article, and so is curiously his December transfer to Johor DT, it turns out. He requested his previous club, Kedah, to buy out the final year of his contract (nothing uncommon here, apparently), but after Johor DT got their man, they were accused by Kedah of wiretapping. Akhyar’s original club now threatens to go to deal with it internationally, before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but this has to go through the Malaysian FA first, and their verdict is expected this month. It’s been going on for roughly half a year already. Keep an eye on it. >>
Both Akhyar and Safawi are the faces of the successful U-23 national team. But they are by no means the only members whose skills have translated to the senior level.
The immensely popular Perth-born right back Matthew Davies, author of two brilliant assists yesterday whose great rapport with Sumareh from their club, Pahang, was very much on show? Yup, he was there at 2018 U-23 Asian Cup, and starting. So was another key defender Adam nor Azlin, specialist in a clean last ditch tackle and a personal favourite of Bear. So were Sumareh and another midfielder Abdul Azih. Three more members of the team that went to China were in the squad but didn’t feature yesterday. Starter Syafiq Ahmad at least participated in the 2018 Asian Games instead.
Remember this is a new Malaysia, armoured with a new-found promise and optimism.
And maybe no one embodies this better than Faiz Nasir, who was ironically not part of any of the tournament squads mentioned above. He’s very short and a bit of a late bloomer, but still only 26, and he’s got a pair of goals in a pair of games for the senior national team already. He mostly plays at winger for Selangor and makes for a decent player, but as a central attacking midfielder for Malaysia, Faiz Nasir is something else entirely. His passing was as crispy as it gets, and his range was second to none in that game. Swift, neat.
He also managed to do this only three minutes into his 15-minute introduction to the big international stage:
Look, I am aware this was just Timor Leste, and there’s every chance Malaysia will bomb once they get the chance to face second-tier or even elite Asian sides. But there’s also a decent chance they’ll do a Thailand or a Vietnam, fare respectably, and eventually fill the role of a potential Asian Cup surprise package as Vietnam and Thailand, now for real, move on to the upper tier of Asian football hierarchy. (Although… hang on…)
It’s worth remembering this is still a team stuck at no. 168 in the latest FIFA ranking. Malaysians themselves will probably be the first ones to remind you of that. All I’m saying is: don’t be surprised if they don’t actually suck come September.
This could well be a new dawn for the long-suffering Malaysian football.