WHEN the final whistle went on Thursday, all the Malaysian players sank to the floor in anguish.
They had fought gallantly for close to two hours and just when the lottery of penalties had seemed inevitable, they had been struck down by home side Vietnam in the 110th minute of the football semi-final.
As the heads hung low, Malaysian Under-23 coach Brad Maloney was consoling every one of his players.
Maloney admitted that the result was devastating for him and the boys, but said at the post-match conference that he was happy with the way his charges carried themselves.
“I am incredibly proud of my boys. They worked extremely hard and played with their hearts,” said the Australian.
“We had one fewer day to recover and had to travel as well. To play 120 minutes against the best team in the competition and conceding such a late goal, I can’t fault my boys.
“Vietnam are deserved favourites. They were pretty physical, but my players never backed down. The dressing room is down because the result was devastating.
“They worked tirelessly and to concede so late isn’t easy to accept. But the boys have one game left to bounce back.”
Harith Haiqal Adam Afkar, who was a colossus in defence before being stretchered out in the 105th minute with an injury, won high praise from Maloney.
“He was the organiser at the back and always kept his mates informed throughout the game. The injury was a shame, but we hope he will be ready for the next game.
“It was indeed a physical game and even our goalkeeper Azri (Ghani) was playing with an injury. It wasn’t ideal, but all of them showed character.
“The fact they put up such a performance, while bruised and battered, I laud them. Not to forget the fantastic atmosphere.
“The Vietnamese crowd really helped the home side.”
Malaysia will face Indonesia in the bronze medal playoff at the My Dinh Stadium tomorrow.
While Malaysia are hopeful of winning, Maloney is already setting his sights on the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan from June 1 to 19.
“The SEA Games was part of our plan. We wanted the boys to get some exposure with one eye on the Asian Cup next month.
“Once the Games are over, we will refocus on the competition and see what can be done.”
Malaysia are in Group C of the tournament, with South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.