FORMER international K. Rajagopal quit his job with PKNS after 22 years to pursue a full-time coaching career in football. His first appointment was with Kelantan in 2001 and, in only his first season, took them to the Malaysia Cup final. He got his break into the national youth team in 2003 before gradually moving up the ranks to take the national team hot seat in April. As a player, he is known as a nippy striker who played alongside the legendary Mokhtar Dahari in the late 1970s. Here, Rajagopal speaks to STARSPORT’s Eric Samuel of his journey and vision to bring back the glory days to Malaysian football.
STARSPORT: How do you feel after guiding the national Under-23 squad to win the SEA Games men’s football gold medal for the first time in 20 years?
RAJAGOPAL: Well, what can I say? People wrote us off from the beginning, especially after seeing the draw that had us in the same group as Thailand and Vietnam. Credit to my boys for their never-say-die attitude and the determination to prove the critics wrong. And I would not have been successful if not for my dedicated coaching staff and team officials.
Proud man: K. Rajagopal shows off his players’
gold medals after the 1-0 win over Vietnam in the
final on Thursday.
STARSPORT: How would you describe yourself and your journey in football?
RAJAGOPAL: A gamble, really. Who would want to leave a steady job after 22 years for football? I took a big risk but I love the game so much. I made painful sacrifices to leave my family for the first time to take up a coaching job with Kelantan. I was not used to being alone and, believe me, I suffered and missed my family a lot. But these are the challenges and I am glad that they have turned out well.
STARSPORT: Did you personally believe the team would succeed and that you would be going home with the gold medal?
RAJAGOPAL: Eight coaches before me tried and failed. But deep inside me, I knew the team would do well. The turning point came when we beat Thailand (2-1). From then on, we grew in confidence and never looked back. It was a fantastic result and I am extremely proud of my boys.
STARSPORT: Malaysian football has been in the doldrums for a long time now. Many foreign coaches have come and gone but nothing much has changed in our game. Do you believe this is the breakthrough for Malaysian football to get back and challenge strongly on the international stage?
RAJAGOPAL: I have always stressed to all my journalist friends on the importance of being patient. Even before I took charge of the Under-23 team, I had said that I would need at least three years before we could see the results. Some of the boys in the squad are barely 20.
STARSPORT: Do you think this famous victory by the national Under-23 team at the SEA Games in Vientiane would really spark off a football revival in Malaysia?
RAJAGOPAL: I believe so. In fact, the signs have been there all these while. Our youth teams have been making waves. For instance, the Under-19 boys beat the Manchester United Academy side (4-0) at Carrington Road a couple of years ago. I was coaching the team then. It was a remarkable result and some of the boys are in this successful SEA Games squad.
STARSPORT: Do you believe we are in the right direction, now?
RAJAGOPAL: The success of the Under-23 boys proves that we are making inroads. For me, the journey has just begun. It is not just me or the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM). Everyone has to play a big role in the development of the game and I wish the people back home would support our cause to raise the image of the game. We need the support in the local game and be there for them, irrespective of the results.
Date of birth: July 10, 1956
Place of birth: Selangor
Club: PKNS FC
State team: Selangor (Malaysia Cup champions, beat Singapore 4-0)
National team: 1980-82
National Under-23: SEA Games champions (2009)
Harimau Muda (Under-19): Premier League champions (2009)
M-League: Premier 1 champions (2000)
Asian Youth (Under-19): Qualified for quarter-finals after 32 years (2003)
AFF Under-19: Runners-up (2005-07)
Lion City Cup: Champions (2005)