Malaysia's World Cup dream has been shattered yet another time.
While Asians giants Japan and South Korea have consistently qualified for the world stage, Malaysia are in the same “team rebuilding” mode for ages now.
The national team have failed in their bid to get past the second round of the Asian Zone World Cup qualifiers for 37 years now, or to be exact after 11 attempts since 1974.
There have been positive signs of progress when the national team were crowned champions of the Suzuki Cup Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championships last year.
National coach Datuk K. Rajagopal’s target for the future is to qualify on merit for the 2015 Asian Cup.
“We have a young national team compared to the experienced Singapore side. It will take time and there are bound to be failures and setbacks along the way.
“It is a learning process for the players before they are ready for the Asian Cup – four years from now,” Rajagopal said at the post-match conference.
The former international said he was unlikely to make drastic changes to the team.
“I believe in these boys. They have worked hard and I have confidence in them to deliver when the time comes. I have to be fair to them and I will not judge them based on this one match alone.”
Although the fans did not show their disappointment, it is evident that Malaysia lacked depth in reserves.
This was clear for everyone to see when Rajagopal had to tinker with his team following the absence of centreback Mohd Aidil Zafuan (ankle injury), midfielder Safiq Rahim (suspension) and striker Norshahrul Idlan Talaha (hamstring injury).
It was also shocking to see the defence crumbling with ease. Had it not been for goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat’s heroics, Malaysia would have lost to Singapore in the second round, return-leg of the Asian Zone World Cup qualifying match at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil on Thursday.
In the end, Malaysia drew 1-1 with Singapore, who go through to the third round with a 6-4 aggregate win.
The porous defence was also the main talking point when they fell 3-5 in the first-leg at the Jalan Besar Stadium last Saturday.
This is surprising considering the fact that centrebacks Mohd Muslim Ahmad and Mohd Fadhli Shas, leftback Mohd Asraruddin Putra Omar and rightback Mahalli Jasuli had led Malaysia to victory in the Suzuki Cup last year.
Maybe the heavy international assignment took its toll on Mohd Muslim, Mohd Fadhli and Mahalli, who were unable to reproduce the same kind of energy level shown in the Suzuki Cup.
The trio have had to play for the pre-Olympic squad as well.
They have hardly had any rest, playing eight international matches in the Asian Zone qualifying round for the World Cup and Olympics from June 19-July 28.
This included the two high-profile friendlies against English Premier League sides Arsenal (July 13) and Liverpool (July 16).
Rajagopal also needs to shore up the midfield department. With influential skipper Safiq out through suspension, there was no player able to command the engine room.
Safiq’s replacement, Ismail Faruqi lacked experience while Amar Rohidan failed to stop Singapore’s Mustafic Fahrudin and Shahril Ishak from taking charge in the centre.
The Malaysian flankers did well in patches, with S. Kunalan and Mohd Amirulhadi Zainal providing some spark. Perhaps they could learn a trick or two from Singapore’s naturalised twin terrors Qiu Li and Shi Jiayi.
Striker Mohd Safee Sali salvaged some pride for Malaysia with a clinical finish inside the box. But what happened to this year’s Golden Boot winner Abdul Hadi Yahaya, Ahmad Fakri Saarani, Baddrol Bakhtiar and Izzaq Faris Ramlan?
The absence of Norshahrul was sorely felt as Safee did not have a good partner upfront to complement his game.
The national team’s assignment for this year has ended.
Rajagopal has to get cracking to strengthen the side before the Suzuki Cup next year and he had better find some more quality players.