Ong Kim Swee's AFC U23 heroes prove Malaysia doubters wrong
Ong Kim Swee hasn't had an easy ride over the last 18 months. Derided and discarded, he could afford himself a quiet smile after arriving home to plaudits and applause in Kuala Lumpur.
The irony won't be lost on the man deemed unworthy of Malaysia's senior national team by one of his fiercest critics in Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (TMJ), the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president. Having been demoted by TMJ in March last year, Ong has steered the under-23 team to one of the finest results in recent memory, while his former squad descends further into farce.
The contrast in fortunes between Ong's team of promising youngsters and the country's senior side is stark.
In China, up against the best the continent has to offer in a competitive age group, Ong and his squad built on and surpassed the silver medal-winning performance from the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games last year.
While there were no medals this time, a place in the quarterfinals of the AFC U23 Championship, and a determined showing against South Korea in an entertaining last eight clash, was proof that hope exists for Malaysian football.
Merely making the tournament, featuring Asia's elite, was considered a massive breakthrough when the Malaysians defied expectations, and an inadequate preparation, to finish top of a qualifying tournament in Thailand last July.
The displays of Ong's team served as the ideal antidote to the ailments of a national team that has become a crumbling catastrophe since his ousting last year.
The on-off Mario Gomez appointment drama played out in an embarrassing fashion before Nelo Vingada arrived.
Cue a winless run of seven games -- including six losses -- under the affable Portuguese tactician, an early exit from qualifying for the newly expanded finals of the AFC Asian Cup and a ticket back to Lisbon for the veteran coach. Former assistant Tan Cheng Hoe, a successful ex-Kedah boss, has taken over.
At the same time, the Young Tigers have won nine of 14 games under Ong, losing only four, to restore some lost national pride.
All the while, Ong kept his counsel, even respectfully doffing his cap to TMJ and crediting the FAM president for the support shown to his team in the lead up to their strong showing in China.
"We honour the trust and support given by TMJ, the preparation provided by FAM leading up to this tournament has been spectacularly executed," Ong posted on Twitter on Sunday.
The previous day, TMJ heaped lavish praise on Ong's men on the FAM Facebook page: "Congratulations and well done. All of you are the pride and joy of all Malaysians."
Yet, a mere 16 months earlier, TMJ was less complimentary of Ong's coaching skills as he withdrew three Johor Darul Ta'zim players from the national squad.
"Even if players trained for four months in the national team, they will still continue to play with that similar style. That's the level of quality Ong Kim Swee has," TMJ said on the Johor Southern Tigers' Facebook page.
"If there is a foreign coach with records of success, I will allow my players to train with him, because I know they can learn under him."
We honour the trust and support given by TMJ, the preparation provided by FAM leading up to this tournament has been spectacularly executed. From the centralized training in KL to South Korea for acclimatisation & friendly matches before our final training base here in China.— ONG KIM SWEE (@OKS_HarimauMsia) January 21, 2018
Ong's public behaviour has been a lesson in diplomacy as he has gone about sculpting a collection of talented young players into a team that grew in confidence and form as the competition played out.
Safawi Rashid excelled in China, Nor Azam Azih shone and Akhyar Rashid signposted his promise in a way that augurs well not only for the long term future but also, in the case of Akhyar, for the country's appearance at the AFC U19 Championship in Indonesia in October.
The senior side's struggles, which have seen the country's FIFA ranking plummet to an all-time low of 175th, are unlikely to give Ong a huge sense of satisfaction. He clearly possesses deep affection for his country and the poor fortunes of the nation on the football field will pain him as they do most patriotic Malaysians.
But, as he first showed at the SEA Games last August, and as he has reconfirmed in China over the last two weeks, the brickbats thrown at Ong in the last year have been grossly unfair.
Perhaps it's time for TMJ and the powers-that-be to reconsider their opinion of the unassuming 47-year-old.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch