FOOTBALL is arguably one of the most popular sports in the world and yet the women’s game has never really taken off here in Malaysia.
In other traditional and even non-traditional footballing nations, women's football has been embraced and developed. Throughout the years, talents like Canada’s Christine Sinclair, Americans Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly and Brazilian trio Marta, Sissi and Cristiane have gone on to set the international stage alight.
Europe has the likes of German Brigit Prinz and current England striker Kelly Smith. Nigeria’s Perpetua Nkwocha is one of the best players to come out of Africa.
Asia too has come into its own with China's (being one of the early superpowers of the sport) Sun Wen and Japan captain Homare Sawa who lifted her country's (and also Asia’s) first ever World Cup title in 2011.
Why is it that as crazy as we are about the beautiful game, Malaysia offers a lukewarm reception towards the idea of seeing 22 women taking to the field?
“It starts with the parents. Most of them are just not open to the idea of having their daughters play football. And it's that very mindset that has to change in order for us to move forward.
“We've got to get used to the idea and encourage our girls to actively pick up the sport,” says Datuk S. Sivasundram, exco member of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) and the national women’s football team manager.
Moreover, he says, women’s football in this country has also been left wanting as there is very little emphasis at the grassroots. There is no major local competition, no women's league and worse, it does not even have a place in Sukma (Malaysia Games).
“It has to be a collective effort. A lot of things need to come together – schools have to open up their sports programmes, the Education Ministry needs to be included …. We need to get into our universities, into SUKIPT (Institute of Higher Learning Games) and getting our girls to play the sport in universities and colleges. At the very least that would provide a steady flow of new talents into our national team,” says Sivasundram.
SUKIPT 2014 features core sports such as athletics, badminton, hockey and swimming as well as secondary sports like chess, woodball and petanque. Football (women's and men's) is not included.
The Malaysian Universities Sports Council has a football league for the boys but not for the girls.
Despite the lack of grassroots development, Malaysia have by no means been a bystander in the women's game. Our best success came in 1995 at the SEA Games in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when Malaysia took the silver behind Thailand.
They finished fourth in 2003 in Vietnam and again at last year's SEA Games in Myanmar.
At the Myanmar Games last month, Malaysia finished second in the group behind Thailand with one win and one loss. However, they fell short in the semi-finals, losing to Vietnam 4-0 and missed out on a medal after being handed a 6-0 defeat by Myanmar in the bonze medal match.
If this is how our women footballers fare without much support, imagine how much more could be achieved with the proper development and training programmes?
“In the region, we're still very much lagging. Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar are way ahead of us. They've got a very active women's programme, they also have a women's league going. I think if they keep at this pace, in a few years we might very well see them make the women's World Cup. So how are we to compete?” questions former defender Alina Cheong who played for Malaysia from 1997-1999 and 2001-2003 before going into football and sports management.
“There has been talk about setting up a league, but we get the door shut on us many times. Throughout my 19-year experience, I've seen so many people come and go, and so many promises left unfulfilled,” says Alina.
While the Harimau Muda A had a training stint in Slovakia, our girls were training in Teluk Intan.
Why the double standard when the recent SEA Games has proven the boys are not any better than the girls?
“My heart goes out to the players. And I sincerely believe that, if given the same tools, overseas exposure and regular competitions as the men, we'd have a very successful women's team,” adds Alina.
Lack of grassroots development, funding and a weak sporting calendar – these seem to be the bane of Malaysian sports.
According to Alina, who spearheaded a girls' football programme in a number of schools around the Klang Valley, Seremban and Pahang in 2010, there are still a lot of hoops to jump through to get the women's football programme up and running.
To be included in Sukma, there was a stipulation that every state must field a team, and at schools, the inclusion of sports in the co-curriculum was up to the school principal's discretion. It's a lose-lose situation.
However, the saving grace is that Sabah and Sarawak have included girls' football into their school co-curriculum. And no surprise, increasingly our women national players have hailed from these two states.
“Sabah and Sarawak are very active in women's football, they have it in their school co-curriculum and so quite naturally, our team is built on that foundation. And now we have an Under-13 side that is being groomed at the Gambang Sports School in Pahang. Give them at least five years, and hopefully they'll start to make the transition into the national team.
“Everything comes into play – proper planning, funding and development. Grassroots development is key for any sport to have a fighting chance. We need the schools to have a genuine interest in, not just developing, but sustaining the sport as well.
“And most importantly, we need someone who will truly fight for the cause,” adds the 34-year-old.
It is true, every sport that has gone to the forefront in Malaysia has not been short of a tireless driving force. In modern times, the like of Lee Chong Wei and Nicol David have been the driving force behind their respective sports.
So, who will stand up for women's football?