Archive for the ‘Asian Football’ Category

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Whoever said it is better to travel in hope than to arrive probably lived before the jet age, and is referring to a leisurely journey by train or boat. Sri Lankan Airlines is a different experience. After a half hours delay at Heathrow, you are crammed into the tube that makes up their Airbus A340 like so much toothpaste. On board you can a demonstration of true service. No matter how many times you press the call button, it is almost impossible to attract the stewardess’s attention, and once attention has been obtained, you find that the stewardess has an attention span no longer than the average goldfish, and your request, however reasonable is either ignored or transformed. The headphones for the movie don’t work, so you ask and ten minutes later, the stewardess brings you a drink. At the end of the meal, you retain your cup and ask for more coffee. Fifteen minutes later, with no response, despite pushing the call button frequently, you push your way out of the seat and go to the steward’s corner. Despite the fact you are carrying the cup, you are told no coffee, because they not have any cups. The fact I had presented one was grudgingly conceded, and I got my coffee.

My travelling companions for the trip were Paul and Kevin. We arrived in Sri Lanka around 3 a.m. – inside the airport is almost indistinguishable from anywhere else in the world, whereas once you have cleared customs and immigration, it takes on a more Asian feel. At least here we were allowed to work out where we were going before we had to suffer the general crush of touts. Exchange rates in the airport are about 4% down on the town, worth knowing if you pass this way. A taxi booking desk arranged a car to town at a fixed price. Once the vehicle (it was not in any way labelled as a taxi) got started it hared off towards town. The journey is about 30km, mainly through built up areas, but we couldn’t get much bearing on the scenery as we passed. It was dark, we were travelling at full pelt, so only neon lights on the route stood out, these appeared to be mainly small eateries or hotels. We stayed at the Grand Oriental Hotel, and they checked us in without any comment about the early hour. I hate hotels that insist check in time is 12 noon or later, especially when I arrive at 4 in the morning. The Grand Oriental must have been a key point of the old British Colonial rule, opposite the docks, one imagines the well-to-do coming off their boats from England and immediately transferring here. However, nigh on two centuries have passed since its opening, and little has been done in the way of maintenance, so the Grandeur has become somewhat faded. Inside, one finds many small faults, such as noisy and ineffective air conditioning, or a shower that tends towards an uncontrollable scalding hot. As with the national airline, the staff appear to have a limited attention span, so asking for something, (such as a fresh battery for TV remote control, or a fresh jug of water) is not guaranteed to bring results first time.

Grand Oriental Hotel

Changing from a cold winter in England to the high humidity and 30 degree temperatures in Colombo hits one quickly. One only has to step outside the hotel’s air conditioned ambience to start sweating. Colombo does not get too many tourists, and there are easily enough locals trying to persuade us to ‘take a tour’, or visit certain events. When this fails to impress, one is offered a ‘massage’, or if its late in the evening, a visit to a nightclub. Apart from on foot, the only way to travel is with the Tuk-Tuks, three wheel moped was two seats under shade at the back. The way to travel in a moped is to hang on tight – as they are always going to head off too fast for the road conditions. There are not too many sights to Colombo – the basic attraction is a contrast between old colonial buildings and the hustle of local street stalls. The guide books mark off Galle Face Green as a place to see, but all this is, is a lawn next to a wide paved promenade that overlooks the sea. On a Tuesday, the remains of the litter from last weekend’s picnics still comes to the fore, with black plastic sacks, mainly bursting with rubbish placed at unstrategic intervals along its edge. While one imagines the weekend green bustling with the local family picnickers, the area is empty on a Tuesday lunchtime, while along the promenade, the evenly positioned benches are the place for courting couples. Each contains one boy, one girl and holding one umbrella as a sun shade. I think that in the more serious relationships, the boy holds the umbrella!

Wherever you wander, you cannot avoid the army checkpoints. Security is a major issue here, although the Tamils fighting for a separate state in the north have been defeated. During the war, terrorist attacks in the city were not uncommon, and the security still remains. Our hotel is right next to a restricted high security area, and we are not allowed to take pictures from the restaurant that overlooks the harbour. As this is now a major container port, it would appear to be a vital link in the nation’s trade. Even walking down the promenade at Galle Face Green, you have to pass checkpoints, and you are only allowed to take photos pointing southwards, not back towards the security zone and the presidential palace.

AT the bottom end of the green, is the Galle Face Hotel, another colonial relic, but better maintained than the Grand Oriental (and hence able to price itself outside our bargain holiday price range). Still, I can take a pot of tea on their well situated veranda (it cost less than £1), and enjoy the cool air coming off the sea, and then drafted downwards by a fan above me. Here Crows chatter between the colonnades of the upper balcony, while a small squirrel runs between the tables eager to pick up scraps left by the visitors.

Galle Face Hotel

Tuesday afternoon sees us at the Sugathadasa Stadium for the first time. This is the National Stadium and holds somewhere around 20-25,000. It is a multi-purpose stadium used primarily for Athletics, but also for Rugby and Football. Most of the ground has an even low slung roof over about ten steps of concrete. The concrete is painted but no wooden or plastic seats are provided, except in the sections closest to the main stand. With a fence and a running track before the pitch, and supporting pillars for the roof, there are no really good views to be had from the low stands. The main stand, which cover around three quarters of a side, is a two tier effort. From the lower portion, you can feel crammed in under a low roof, which is supported by view restricting pillars. Making my way upstairs, I find the rest of my party already in the best viewing positions. There is a forward section of about 10 rows, which enjoys the only uninterrupted views of the pitch. This was the only area that got crowded, even when the hosts were playing. The section is also at a good height for viewing across a track, while you are still close enough to read the players’ numbers. Above us, there are many more rows, but again the roof supports block parts of the view.

The first day’s football, a double header saw Tajikistan play Bangladesh, followed by Sri Lanka against Myanmar. We had a rainstorm just before the first match, which continued while they were playing. This made the pitch a little slippery, but did not excuse much of the play. The first half of the opening game was pitiful. There was a lack of basic skills on show as few players could either pass or trap the ball. There were a few shots and headers off target, and just one shot on target – and this had no more power than a broken down tuk-tuk. Tajikistan had come to this tournament from a country still in the grips of winter, but via a week of training in Doha, where the temperatures were not up to Sri Lankan standard (under 25° in Doha, but over 30 in Colombo, plus a much higher humidity). Their league season is on a winter break, and the team were at best rusty. With recent tournaments for the South Asian Football Federation and South Asian Games (U-23) involving many of the squad, Bangladesh came into the tournament better prepared, and this showed even in the sad show that was the first half. They were creating better chances to miss than their opponents. Although the Tajiks tried to get into the game early in the second half, the pattern soon returned, except now the chances appeared a little better. The finest piece of football of the game, halfway through the period ended with full back Nasir, overlapping down the right, cutting a ball in from the by-line to his Mohammedan Dhaka team-mate Enamul to score. Two more goals followed in quick order, although both goalkeepers may reflect that they could have done better with the chance. Rabiev levelled the scores just two minutes after his team went behind, but then Meshu got Bangladesh’s second with fifteen minutes to go. Tajik defender Choriev then got himself sent off and his team could not come close to levelling with a man short. Indeed, as they pushed forward, Bangladesh were increasingly dangerous on the break, and Enamul really should have scored again when in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper at the end.

The second game saw the hosts take on Myanmar. Sri Lanka, like Bangladesh had been playing in the South Asian competitions, while Myanmar did not appear to have had much recent football. The home side came out eager to please, but with no immediate success. They could not keep this up, and were soon being pushed back into their own area. Playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation, the midfield was slow in moving up in support of the striker, but at least to start, the defence held its line. This story changed in the 18th minute when Rahmeen was adjudged to have lunged in at a Myanmar defender and received a red card. I did not have a good view of the incident, while Paul thought both players went in together and the foul could well have been given the other way. The home manager said something similar in an interview afterwards, and blamed this loss of one of his most experienced players for what happened next. What happened next was that Myanmar took control of the match, slowly at first taking the midfield with their 4-2-3-1 formation – Tun Tin Win and wide player Kyaw Thiha enjoying the freedom that the extra player gave them. Myanmar eventually took the lead on the 40th minute, with a long shot from Thiha. In the second half, Myanmar were completely dominant, but it still took until the 78th minute before they scored their second goal, Yan Oaing getting on the end of Khun Maung Tun’s cross. Pai Soe, coming on as substitute for Kyaw Thiha added another from close range in the 81st minute and Myo Min Tun added the final goal with a free kick from 25 yards, going in off the near post with two minutes to go.

Matches come thick and fast in these tournaments, the group series means every team has three games to play in just five days – which really does not provide enough recovery time. Squad management is therefore of vital importance in the second and third games. The first day was hot and very humid, especially for the second game after the rain that had affected the first. The second game listed a crowd of 3000 which may well be about correct, while the 1000 recorded for the opening game appeared to be stretching the figures. On day 3, the two winners will meet in one match, the two losers in the other. I will not be viewing and it is difficult to guess the result of the ‘winners’ game. For Sri Lanka, it is equally difficult to imagine them improving much, even with a full eleven on the field. A second defeat would mean elimination for the home team, seriously affecting the rest of the attendances.

Setting the Scene

Friday, February 12th, 2010

It can be said that once you have a National Football Association, the most logical thing to do is to arrange a match against your nearest neighbours (and show them that you are better at the game). The Continental Federations, meanwhile have very little better to do than organise international competitions. Hence the Copa America, the oldest continental tournament dates back to 1916, the same date as the formation of the South American federation, (Conmebol). UEFA was formed in 1954, with the European Cup starting the following year and the first European Championships in 1960. The North and Central American CONCACAF were founded in 1961, with its first championship two years later – and this was the merger of two other smaller confederations each with their own championship. The Asian Cup, starting in 1956 and the Cup of African Nations a year later were both started hot on the heels of the formation of the Continental federation. Only in Oceania, a disparate confederation whose main purpose is to take on those islands not in any other grouping did a competition not start immediately. The Oceania Football Confederation was started in 1966, but only two championships were played before a regular formula was commenced in 1996. Australia have either won, or finished second to New Zealand in every competition they competed in, but have now jumped ship and become part of Asia. To some extent it is only the force of world football that has forced Oceania into having competitions, with the last two continental championships also being the World Cup qualification matches, and providing a team for the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In a similar style, the Oceania Champions League is now played annually to provide a team for the World Club Championships. It is worth noting that every continent except South America now calls its club championship the “Champions League”, and none are limited in entry to Champions only. The Copa Libertadores retains its historical name and introduced group stages back in 1962 and allowed teams, other than Champions from 1966.

Back to Asia, where the AFC has been running since the mid-fifties, and the first Asian Cup started in 1956. The first tournament should have had ten teams, with four playing the finals in Hong Kong. As it was, Israel was given a free ride to the finals, as both Afghanistan and Pakistan withdrew. South Korea qualified at the expense of Taiwan and the Philippines, and South Vietnam at the expense of Malaysia and Cambodia. The overall title was won by South Korea in a single round robbing group. Over the years, the numbers grew, and the politics became a little easier after the movement of Israel to UEFA. By 1996, there were 37 countries competing, 44 in 2000, 43 in 2004, but only 29 for 2007 and 24 for 2011.

Why the sudden discrepancy? Asia has not lost teams (Kazakhstan have switched to Europe, but for 2007, Australia came in from Oceania). The answer is the Asian Challenge Cup. Up until the 2004 Asian Cup, qualifying tournaments were held in single venues over a short period of time, but some of the bigger countries wanted more competitive home fixtures. (Asia’s World Cup qualification used to also be single venue, so a country not chosen to host matches only had friendly home games). The smaller countries baulked at the idea of travelling across the continent to get heavily beaten – in some cases they just would not have been able to afford to compete. To fill the void, and provide competitive football for those clubs not involved in the Asian Cup, the Challenge Cup was started in 2006. The first Challenge Cup was for 16 teams, with no qualification competition and just the finals in Bangladesh. It was the first Continental Championship, Second Division.

The AFC divided their 45 countries (pre-Australia) into three groups. The top 14 were those who might expect to reach most Asian Cup final series, and could even put in a good run in the World Cup (some of the weaker teams in the list must have been questionable). These were Bahrain, China, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, UAE, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The second group, also 14 countries were called developing associations – the theory that they could grow to join the developed associations in the first group, but in the meantime they would settle for being knocked out of Asian and World Cups in group games. These were Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Singapore, Syria, Turkmenistan and Yemen.

The final 17 were called emerging nations, in some cases more in hope than expectation. They were Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Taiwan, East Timor, Guam, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macau, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. You may think this is simple, the first two groups, plus new boys Australia make up the 29 entrants into the Asian Cup, while the final 17 lose one somehow to become the Challenge Cup entrants. Asia is never as simple as that. It would appear that the emerging group had the option to enter both, an option taken up by Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Taiwan, although Sri Lanka from the Asian Cup without playing – the Maldives, Myanmar and North Korea not entering the Asian Cup. Meanwhile Mongolia, Laos and East Timor did not enter the Challenge Cup, so the AFC drafted in India and Bangladesh (the latter as hosts) and increased the number of teams entered for both competitions to five. The competition was won by Tajikistan, who won five of their six matches, losing the last group match to Kyrgyzstan only after they were confirmed as through anyway. They beat Sri Lanka in the final by 4-0.

In order to juice up the 2008 and 2010 Challenge Cups, the AFC decided that the champions of each would gain qualification to the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. They also decided that the top three from the 2007 competition did not need to qualify, and the hosts, of course had a free run. This meant that only 10 places were available through qualification. Never one for simplification, the AFC allowed 21 teams into this competition, meaning a single knock out match (the Maldives being beaten twice by the Lebanon), and then placed the remaining 20 into five groups of four.

Before qualification started for the Asian Cup, there was the 2008 Challenge Cup. The AFC had managed to reduce the numbers, so only one Asian Cup team was also entered this time; this being the host nation, India. As well as India, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Myanmar were made top seeds and exempt from qualifying. Holders Tajikistan, beaten finalist Sri Lanka and losing semi-finalists Kyrgyzstan and Nepal from 2006 were all asked to qualify again. Only Kyrgyzstan of this quartet had the advantage of a home qualifying series, (they were all single venue), but curiously they were they only one to lose out, beaten by Afghanistan. Bangladesh came third in this group, while Laos withdrew without playing. Nepal played in Cambodia, where the hosts were second, Macau lost two games, and Palestine withdrew without playing. Sri Lanka finished ahead of Pakistan, hosts Taiwan and Guam. The closest group saw Tajikistan ahead of hosts Philippines on goal difference, with Brunei and Bhutan only getting a point by drawing with each other.

The finals in Hyderabad must have been a great disappointment to the organisers. It should have used Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium as its main venue, but the poor condition of the former international cricket ground meant that most games were switched to Gachibowli Athletics Stadium. The final was then rained off, and switched to New Delhi. This may be seen as a godsend. While no match in Hyderabad was watched by more than 1500 (India’s semi-final) and most by just one or two hundred, the final was seen by around 10,000 spectators. The group matches did at least confirm the AFC seedings, with only holders Tajikistan of the qualified teams reaching the semi-finals. Their neighbours, Turkmenistan missing out. India went through to the final where they beat Tajikistan 4-1. North Korea beat Myanmar 4-0 to take third place

The result meant that India had qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup, some four months before the qualifying campaign was due to start. Naturally they withdrew, leaving one group a team short.

For the 2010 Asian Cup, which was long rumoured to again be held in India, there was originally a possible 23 teams, but Guam, East Timor and Guam chose not to compete. The Maldives (who of course had already failed in qualification for the Asian Cup) and Mongolia came in having missed the 2008 edition. Three teams were given exemption to the finals, India, Tajikistan and North Korea. Not only were these the top three from the last competition, but they were also the top three using FIFA rankings (which decided seeing). The other 17 teams were to be placed into four groups of four, with Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh chosen as hosts. This meant the worst two on the rankings; Macau and Mongolia had to fight out a preliminary two-legged tie. The scores were 2-0 to Macau in the first leg (crowd 500) and 3-1 to Mongolia in Ulan Bator (3000). Macau went through on away goals.

The first group to play was in Nepal, in March 2009, with Afghanistan announcing their withdrawal two days before the group started. All three matches ended in draws with Kyrgyzstan taking the honours thanks to the fact they drew both games 1-1, while Nepal and Palestine drew 0-0. There were crowds of 12,000 and 15,000 when Nepal played in Kathmandu, 2000 for the game without the hosts. Nepal was placed second in the group, by virtue of less yellow cards. Sri Lanka staged the second group, winning their first two games, meaning they only needed to draw against Pakistan in the last game. This match finished 2-2, leaving Pakistan in second, Taiwan third and Brunei (three defeats bottom of the table). The best attendance recorded in Colombo was 3000 for Sri Lanka’s final game. The worst was only 200, not a good omen for the finals. A week later, the Maldives group was played, with the home side losing to Turkmenistan 3-1 in the opening game. Turkmenistan went on to score seven against Bhutan and five against the Philippines to take a 100% record. The home side also won their other two games, and recorded official crowds of 9000 for each game. A few hundred only was recorded for games not involving the hosts. The Philippines took third place by virtue of beating Bhutan 1-0. Finally, attention turned to Dhaka, where the attendances were very good. All of Bangladesh games were seen by over 8000 and the deciding game by 14,000. This was the second game, and resulted in the home side losing 2-1 to Myanmar. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar won their first and third games, while Cambodia beat Macau to finish third.

Curiously, this meant that all four groups finished in the order one might expect using the rankings given by FIFA in January 2009, (when the groups were drawn). Finally, there was one place to be given to the best runner up. Due to Afghanistan’s withdrawal, games against the fourth placed team in the groups were discounted. This would prove crucial. Both Bangladesh and the Maldives had beaten the third placed team, but lost to the group winners, while both Pakistan and Nepal had drawn against the group winners, and the third placed team. No fourth placed team had picked up a point. So Bangladesh and the Maldives had three points, against the others with two. Bangladesh had a level goal difference, and this took them through. Had all games counted, the Maldives with a bigger win would have made it.

Sometime after all the matches were completed, the decision to play in Sri Lanka was taken. I think this is fair enough, no stadiums are being built, so six months is surely enough preparation time. Anyway, with one of the stadiums for the finals changing in the week before they were played, it seems that very little pre-planning was really done. The groups for the finals are A), Tajikistan (148), Bangladesh (150), Myanmar (141) and Sri Lanka (151) and B) India (130), Kyrgyzstan (158), Turkmenistan (134) and North Korea (85) – showing the current FIFA rankings in brackets. This however may not be a tournament where the seeding holds sway. Three teams are less than full strength. The Indians admitted so, with nothing for them to win, they are using their under-23 team, rather than the full international side. They did the same in the recent South Asia Football Federation finals, which they won, beating the Maldives on penalties in the final. Sri Lanka was so disappointed with their performance in the same tournament, that they ‘disbanded’ the senior team afterwards. The preliminary squad list I have seen suggests 50-50 between reasonably experienced players and youngsters with hardly a cap, while Panushanth Kulenthiren is staying with his club (Roma) in Europe. The North Korean squad is also bare of the majority of players that competed in their successful World Cup qualifying campaign. It appears that while they bemoan the fact they failed to make the finals of the East Asian tournament (currently underway in Tokyo) as it would have brought them up against China, Japan and South Korea and given them a good preparation of the World Cup, they do not consider this to be a good second choice. I find this surprising as it is their chance to play in next year’s Asian Cup. With their best teams, I would have expected North Korea and India to reach the final, but now I feel the central Asians, particularly Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to be the most likely finalists.

The next post on this Blog will be posted from Sri Lanka

Harimau Muda look to the West

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

It is reported in Malaysia that Harimau Muda (translates as Young Tigers) are to enter a side into the Slovakian First Division when it resumes following the winter break. As yet, I can find no equivalent reports from Slovakia to confirm the agreement, and the fixture list still shows fixtures for Sport Podbrezova, who pulled out of the league just five games into the season. Confusingly, the report says they will be based in the city of Vion. I can find no reference to this place, and suspect that they will actually be at Zlate Moravce, whose team in the same league carries the sponsor’s name ViOn.

Harimau Muda is basically the national youth squad of Malaysia, with the players concerned having been removed from club teams and put on central contracts, in much the same way as the English cricket team. At under-19 level, they have been competing in the lower division (perversely called the Malaysian Premier League) of the Malaysian league. At the end of last season, they won this division, but were prevented from taking up promotion to the Malaysian Super League. Instead, they have remained the Premier League, and remained as an under-19 squad. Those players graduating from the young squad on age grounds were not given anywhere to go, as they were still not permitted to rejoin club sides. The team to play in Slovakia are the national U-21 squad.

Having been kept out of their own national league, there then came a suggestion they should join the Singaporean League. It seemed a surprising suggestion, considering the politics of this are. Until 1994, Singapore entered a team in the Malaysian League. Although this team had non-Singaporeans, it was still the basis of their national side as well. The S-League has a history of allowing a number of foreign sides into its competition. Albirex Niigata, with a senior team in Japan’s J-League have been operating in Singapore for several seasons, I guess they believe it is a good training ground for their younger players. There have been a number of Chinese teams in the league, and for the last few years, there has been a Korean team. All the ‘foreign’ teams in the S-League have a base within Singapore, and play a team made up 100% of their own nationals. The rest of the S-League combines Singaporeans with a limited number of foreign nationals. Whereas I have never been certain about the success of say, Albirex Niigata, in terms of transfers back to Japan – it is clear that their existence has increased the number of Japanese players with other Singaporean clubs – most are graduates from the Niigata club.

There was a departure for the S-League last season when DPMM were admitted. DPMM had followed on from a long tradition of Brunei clubs in the Malaysian leagues, but were thrown out in December 2008 (between seasons) when the Brunei FA failed to register properly with a governmental agency. Taking them into the S-League, DPMM were an instant success with good crowds and results. Unlike the other ‘foreign’ teams, they continued to play in Brunei, and used Brunei players with a permitted number of foreigners. However, local politics conflicted with FIFA policy, the government attempting to set up a new organisation to run football in Brunei. FIFA then suspended the country from all international football, and DPMM were forced out of the S-League with just five fixtures to play, and the League Cup in their trophy room. Had Harimau Muda been accepted into the S-League, they would have been a team of Malay nationals only, but it was uncertain whether they would have been based in Singapore, or played home games in Malaysia.

However, despite the fact that they had a vacancy, and the chance to turn the tables on their local and larger rivals, the S-League refused to admit the Malaysian team into their membership. Instead they have given places to a side affiliated to Chinese champions Beijing Guo’an, and to Etoile FC, who are intending to use only French nationals. Incidentally, the Singaporean equivalent to Harimau Muda, the Young Lions, play at Under-21 level in the S-League, so by taking in the Malay team, they would effectively be raising three matches per season to the level of U-21 international.

Not perturbed by this, the FAM turned to Europe, and appear to have come to an agreement where their team will take over Podbrezova’s fixtures from the end of the month. The Malaysian report says these matches will be competitive, but that must be open to questioning? With 14 games to play, it is difficult to believe that points will be awarded, as they will be playing 3 of their 11 opponents twice, but the rest once only. If points are not awarded, then surely these games are no more than friendlies, and the Slovakian sides will have no incentive to put out their strongest XI.

Is this the way forward for small nations, anxious for the players to get experience? Could we see a number of National, or National Under-21 sides playing in European leagues? It certainly could help their players to gain experience in a more competitive arena (at least, if the games are made to be competitive), and it puts these players closer to the market place, increasing their chances of being picked up by European clubs generally.

On the other hand, keeping a squad of 26 players and their coaches away from home for four months or more must be testing the FAM’s finances. In the meantime, their home league is in disarray, two top division clubs pulled out at the end of last season, and this season they will have only one representative in Asian club competitions, the other citing costs as their reason for not competing. The clubs also complain that the rule banning foreign players in Malaysia reduces their competitiveness in these competitions.

The senior national team fares no better, with heavy defeats in the 2007 Asian Cup followed by straight defeats in all their games in the quest to reach the 2011 finals, while the World Cup campaign was over almost before it began. The loss of a group of players who should be among the best in the league is not exactly doing anything to improve the situation.

Last seasons under-19 squad, having won the lower division of the Malaysian League, then narrowly failed to make it to the finals of the Asian Under 19 competition. This may be an acceptable return for keeping the squad together, but one wonders what will be required to justify running a squad abroad – the next challenges for Malaysia are Olympic qualifying for London 2012 (an u-23 squad then, so basically using the current u-21 team) and the 2014 World Cup – Asian qualification is going to start incredibly early, but I think Malay pride would settle for an improved performance in the more local ASEAN Cup at the end of the year.

Post script – since writing this, I have been alerted to a Slovakian news story. What this shows is that while the idea is being given serious consideration in Slovakia (as a series of friendlies, not for league points), the decision will not be made until a meeting of the clubs on 15 February.