Malaysia vs Bhutan
Bukit Jalil National Stadium, International Friendly, April 1, 2018
Somewhere on these pages, you can no doubt find Matt or I sticking up for international football. Of course, being Welsh, it’s been easy to enjoy the international game in recent years. The Euros hangover was fairly tame and the China Cup, with tongue only slightly in cheek, went a little way to making up for World Cup qualification disappointment. That trip even had ex-international footballer Laura McAllister writing that Wales’ national football team could claim to be the country’s most important global brand.
So, when international week comes along, it’s not the football that I dread, but the constant complaining. From the podcasts that question how they will possibly fill the time (and somehow always manage to do so), to the tweets hailing the return of club football (or, in fact, just a few of Europe’s top leagues), it’s all very tedious.
If any football fans have a right to detest the international break, it’s followers of the Malaysian national team. Beginning in March 2015, national teams across Asia began the joint qualification tournament for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup. Three years on Malaysia’s 16th and final game in the long process ended in a 2-1 defeat in Lebanon. That this narrow defeat was greeted reasonably positively only indicates how bad things have been.
In the first round, World Cup qualification hopes were ended by six defeats in eight games, including losses of 6-0 to Palestine and 10-0 to the UAE. Two play-off victories over Timor Leste (who they’d also beaten twice in the group stage) kept them in with a chance of reaching the Asian Cup. The defeat in Beirut, however, saw Malaysia finish bottom of their group (which also contained Hong Kong and North Korea) with just a single point from six matches.
And that’s just on the field. In December, Nelo Vingada, the successful Portuguese coach who led his country’s 90s Golden Generation to back-to-back World U20 titles, left his job as Malaysia’s coach after just seven months in the role. Next, following Malaysia’s fall to 178th in the March FIFA rankings, the FAM President resigned from his position. And then, the national team continued its complicated relationship with the country’s most dominant team, Johor Darul Ta’zim. Following a disappointing 2-2 draw in a warm-up friendly with Mongolia, 14 JDT players returned to the club instead of making the trip to Lebanon.
Imagine, then, with all of this going on, how fans must have felt when it was announced that two rounds of league fixtures were being cancelled and the international break extended to shoehorn in another friendly. The extra game would take place on April 1, so maybe it was just a cruel prank? No, a few days later Nepal were announced as opponents and it was game on.
Or was it? On Twitter, I saw the Nepal game had been cancelled. Within a few hours, however, Bhutan were in as last-minute replacements. Whatever Malaysian fans were feeling about the game, I was pretty happy. Work had meant I couldn’t make the Mongolia game, so now I would finally get the chance to attend a match at Bukit Jalil and tick another country off my FIFA members list (Bhutan would be number 48).
By the time I got home from work, I had just enough time for a visit to TAPS, my local craft beer bar. While I’m not so taken by Brewdog’s Elvis Juice as Matt and some friends at home, it is growing on me and I was happy to see it on the board. There was even time for a second to help wash down a portion of fried chicken, and then it was off to the monorail.
Bukit Jalil Stadium is well-served by public transport, but is quite far from the centre of the city. I was going just a few stations on the monorail- which, probably because of The Simpsons, is always fun to ride- before switching onto the LRT. About half an hour before kick-off, I arrived and, from the station platform, the stadium looked great with brightly-lit facade.
There wasn’t the usual hustle and bustle around the ground that I’ve come to expect and appreciate at Malaysian football grounds. There was the odd scarf seller or stall selling t-shirts and Stone Island caps, but nothing like the array of merchandise I’ve seen at Super League matches. Perhaps the anticipation of a small crowd- on top of Malaysia’s terrible form, I had seen several complaints online about the 30RM price of ticket- meant the vendors stayed at home.
Next was my ticket, the turnstiles, and the confiscation of my umbrella, which I felt was harsh. I’ll admit it’s not the most sensible to take to a stadium, but, had I gone on some umbrella rampage, I would have been easily identifiable. It was getting old and rusty, so I can’t complain too much. After a quick walk along the food trucks lined up on the concourse, I settled on Babarittos. Their pepper beef burrito was a burrito in name only- there was no rice- but it tasted great.
For the first half, I headed for the upper tier and inside you see what a truly magnificent stadium Bukit Jalil is. With not too far off 90,000 seats, it is not just one of Asia’s, but also the world’s largest football stadiums. The upper tiers are steep enough that the track- where Iwan Thomas took gold for Wales at the 1998 Commonwealth Games- doesn’t seem to distance you from the play too much, and the screens and sound system are first rate.
A little to my left, was a small group of Bhutan supporters. Like Malaysian football fans, they had not seen their country win since late-2016, but this World/Asian Cup had been their most successful ever. They may have conceded 84 goals across their 16 games, but their three wins had them as high as 159 in the FIFA Rankings. However, they were coming into this game on the back of a 7-0 loss to the Maldives. The fans, however, seemed more than happy to be bale to cheer on their team and wave their fabulous flag.
Anthems were sung and the game was soon underway. Malaysia, as they would have hoped and expected, dominated from early on, and teen-aged forward Akhyar Rashid looked eager to add to the goal he had scored against Mongolia. However, it was his partners in attack who combined for the opener on 11 minutes, Wan Zack Haikal heading in the cross from captain Zaquan Adha.
Less than ten minutes later, Nazmi Faiz’s pass opened up the Bhutan defence and found Wan Zack, who was fouled. Zaquan scored from the spot. The skipper’s Kuala Lumpur teammate, Irfan Zakaria, got the third on 27 minutes from Wan Zack’s corner. Zaquan, who hasn’t featured much for KL so far this year, completed his hat-trick with goals in the 36th and 40th minutes, the latter owning much to the Bhutan keeper’s fumbled attempt at a save. The visitors almost had a goal of their own to cheer when a misplaced pass allowed their attacker to go around Khairul Fahmi in the Malaysian goal, but the covering defender was quick enough to cut out the danger.
Half-time: Malaysia 5-0 Bhutan
For the second half, I decided to move to the lower tier and sit closer to the Ultras Malaya, the national team’s most vocal fans. They’d already belted out some of my favourite, drum-led chants in the first half, and hoped they would have plenty more for the second 45. In fact, I spent most of the opening exchanges just watching the supporters.
Not long after I had returned my attention to the game, Zaquan scored his fourth and Malaysia’s sixth. Akram Mahinan did well to first get to the byline, and then to keep the ball in play, and Zaquan had a relatively easy finish. I had figured out that the goals were coming at roughly one every nine minutes, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant for the scoreline if Malaysia could maintain that ratio.
It was probably because I had thought this that the next goal didn’t arrive for a full 18 minutes. JDT’s Syafiq Ahmad is another young player fans are hoping can help turn Malaysia’s fortunes in future and he scored his second international goal with a header from a Syazwan Andik corner (which also meant every goal had been scored or assisted by a Kuala Lumpur player). It was harsh on the Bhutan keeper, though. He had made two good attempts at keeping the ball out, but the assistant referee ruled the second had been unsuccessful.
Malaysia didn’t ease up in the final ten minutes. One shot was dragged wide from close range and another corner was headed just over the bar. A close range volley was fired high and a powerful free-kick was, just about, pushed around the post. The fans weren’t easing up, either. After being starved of victory for so long, they continued to sing with gusto throughout the procession that had been this second half. As the players came over to their corner at full-time, they broke into an a capella version of Negaraku– Malaysia’s national anthem- that would have made Y Wal Goch proud.
Full-time: Malaysia 7-0 Bhutan
As enjoyable as the evening was, this had been, on reflection, a strange game to sit through. There were seven goals, but I was never truly excited. I saw my first ever four-goal haul, but don’t remember thinking any individual really stood out. It was one of the most one-sided matches I’ve ever attended, but then I think that was always the intention.
Since arriving here, most of the reporting and comments I’ve seen on Malaysian football have been positive. The U23 national team have had two relatively positive tournaments and Malaysia’s Super League has attracted new sponsors, TV deals, and quality players from neighbouring countries. Perhaps, with the rather big monkey of a 12-game, 16-month winless run off its back, some of that positivity will spread to the national team.
Riding the subway back home, the post-match reaction online was fairly measured. For every tweet proclaiming the ‘First win since..’, or ‘First hat-trick since…’, or ‘Most goals since…’, there was another saying ‘Yeah, but it was only Bhutan.’ And both points of view are probably right; this was a very good performance by a group of mostly young players, but it’s unlikely they’ll look back on this friendly as the catalyst.
Malaysian fans, however, can at least look forward to the next international break with less apprehension.
GOOD: seven goals and a first four-goal haul; amazing stadium; great atmosphere generated by the very small crowd; public transport access
BAD: losing my umbrella; would like to have seen a (much) bigger crowd