FOR almost one-and-a-half years, I did not miss even a single Harimau Malaya and Harimau Muda home game. This was from the first-leg semi-final game against Vietnam in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2010 until the end of the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in 2012.
I even managed to go for my first away game against Singapore in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers back in July 2011. (With the exception of the game against Liverpool, I did not go for any friendly games against the big European clubs). I used to go for Malaysia games before, but not all the time.
Since that AFF victory in 2010, I have been very passionate about the team. If in the past I only wore Liverpool jerseys, now you can find Malaysia jerseys in my closet. I don’t think I am alone in this. Nowadays, you see many people supporting the national team, proudly wearing the black and yellow or the blue of the Harimau Malaya.
For me, one man is responsible for this renaissance in Malaysian football – Datuk K. Rajagopal, the former coach of the national team. I met him last week to ask him about his time in charge of the national team.
Rajagopal said he left a legacy in Malaysian football.
“There had been 11 or 12 coaches, including foreign ones, before me but no one managed to do what I did – winning the Sea Games after 20 years and the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time. The whole nation got together to support the team. Flags were flying in the stadium and the Prime Minister declared a public holiday,” he said.
For me personally, the final against Indonesia in the AFF Cup in 2010 in Bukit Jalil was the best Malaysian game I ever attended. We won 3-0 but that was besides the point. That was the first time I had seen a stadium packed to the brim. Singing the Negaraku with 75,000 other Malaysian fans (and 10,000 Indonesian fans) was an experience I will never forget.
The game against Singapore came close, as there were about 85,000 Malaysians in the stadium hoping to win against the Lions. Our team faltered in the end, but that was the first time I saw the crowd cheer on our players despite losing.
Although disappointed with the outcome, Rajagopal said the team, at that point, was not ready to face the Asian giants in the next round. He pointed out that Singapore was crushed in the third round in a group that included Iraq and China.
“I was hoping to build the team for the 2015 Asian Cup,” he said.
Malaysia was drawn with Bahrain, Qatar and Yemen in the qualifying tournament. The team managed to beat Yemen at home and held Bahrain to a draw, a game they could have won with a bit of luck. Away though, the team lost narrowly to Bahrain, and were defeated by Qatar in both legs.
Malaysia still has an outside chance to qualify for the tournament by finishing as one of the best third place finishers. Rajagopal however, will not be in charge of the last game against Yemen.
“It was their (Football Association of Malaysia’s) decision not to renew my contract. I believe that I did the job to the best of my ability,” he said.
He thought the team did well to lose narrowly to the likes of Bahrain and Qatar.
“We are close to their standards. They are among the best in Asia. They have naturalised players and their physiques are different,” he said.
When asked if we could hold our own against Japan and South Korea, Rajagopal said definitely not.
Towards the end of his tenure as national coach, Rajagopal received a lot of brickbats from fans. They couldn’t understand his tactics and choice of players. Many asked why he had favourites such as Safiq Rahim and did not choose the likes of Badri Radzi (Piya) of Kelantan.
Rajagopal said every coach has his own philosophy of playing and players they prefer.
“Did I win the Sea Games and AFF with Piya? Why doesn’t Mourinho play Juan Mata in every game? Why does he still use older players such as (Frank) Lampard and (John) Terry? It is up to the coach,” he said.
The fans and media could not accept his explanations and criticised him when things went wrong. In the home game against Bahrain the Ultras Malaya even turned against Rajagopal when the team went down just before the stroke of half-time.
I have always thought that the ultras were staunch supporters, but I was disgusted and have lost all respect for them. Without Rajagopal, there wouldn’t be that many joining the movement in the first place.
Rajagopal himself was disappointed with their actions but believes someone had provoked them.
“If they were really loyal they would support the team no matter what. We were playing a world class team and we conceded a goal just before half time. Maybe it was a set-up,” he said.
Rajagopal also dismissed his critics who have claimed that that he had favourite players. He also pointed out that he gave chances to many players including the likes of Junior Edstal who is now considered a core member of Harimau Malaya.
When the media wasn’t criticising him about his favourites, they said he used to love “experimenting” with his team. Rajagopal however said he had never used the word “experiment”.
“I don’t know how this term came about. I said that I was trying out new players,” he said.
In any case, Rajagopal said he didn’t have any regrets and was “blessed” that he had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of Mourinho, Kenny Dalglish, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Roberto Mancini.
More importantly, he was happy with the fan support the team has enjoyed.
Like him or not, Malaysians, and football fans in particular, owe a lot to Rajagopal. It is because of him fans watch the team. It is because of him many of us don the Malaysian jersey. Thank you, King Raja.
Sehati, Sejiwa, Selamanya Harimau Malaya!
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.