After 180 minutes of exciting football action, 24 shots on goal, 17 fouls and 6 goals, Malaysia made history in December by winning the AFF Suzuki Cup for the first time in their history when they defeated Indonesia 4-2 on aggregate.
Both teams came into this two-tie affair, played over the holiday season on the 26th and 29th of December, hoping for a little festive joy to end the year with. Ultimately, home form proved to be decisive as the Malaysians were more clinical at the Bukit Jalil stadium and chalked up an emphatic 3-0 victory in the first leg. The Indonesians managed to restore some pride in front of their own fans at the Gelora Bung Karno by exacting revenge in the form of a 2-1 victory but it was not enough.
In the build-up to the final, pundits had a field day analysing the prowess of Indonesia’s attack – the tournament top-scorers boasted 13 goals with Cristian Gonzáles and Muhammad Ridwan co-topping the scoring charts with 3 goals each – and they expected the Indonesians to take home the Asean crown. What they did not expect was a resilient showing by the Malaysians in the first leg. Roared on by a full-house crowd in a partisan mood at the Bukit Jalil which was filled hours before kick-off, the Malaysians did as predicted and played a counter-attacking game as they looked to soak up the pressure and hit the Indonesians on the break.
There were 22 hearts worn on the sleeves out on the field as every ball was contested with commitment and desire with both teams looking to establish a foothold in the game. The Indonesians were dealt a huge blow early on when Oktavianus Maniani, the left-sided creative winger, earned a yellow card for a rough challenge that ruled him out of the return fixture 3 days later. Meanwhile, the visitors knew something special was needed to break the deadlock in a tight game like this and Firman Utina attempted, but failed eventually, to score directly from a succession of corners by chipping it towards the goal.
The Malaysians knew that as long as the scoreline was 0-0, they stood a chance with their own attacking outlets in the mould of strikers Norsharul Idlan and Mohamad Safee, who were slowly gearing into top form, and winger S Kunalan. Kunalan almost carved out an goal out of nothing as he skipped past two defenders before cutting in and drilling a shot straight into the arms of Indonesian goalkeeper Markus Harrison. It seems that the Malaysians were putting it all on the line to tilt the home leg in their favour as they kept possession and went in search of the opener despite one of their players going down to a high boot.
However, the game was blighted by a talking point that the Indonesians will point to as the cause of their collaspe. Amidst the crowds were a select few who had laser pointers with them and proceeded to shine them on the pitch and on the player’s faces, most notably Harrison. The Indonesians protested a few times and the game was even halted for a full eight minutes in the 2nd half when the visitors walked off the pitch in protest of the Malaysian authorities not doing anything about the disturbance from afar.
This break eventually proved crucial as the Malaysians scored from the restart. Winning a free-kick just before the walkout, the Malaysians saw it cleared out for a failed Indonesian counter before the ball was hoofed from the home defense back into Indonesian territory as both Norshahrul and defender Maman Abdurahman went in pursuit.
The centre-back attempted to shield the ball out for a goal-kick but was easily dispossessed by Norshahrul as he cut inside and laid the ball onto Safee’s path for him to guide it past Harrison to the delight of the home crowd.
If anything, the goal turned the game into Malaysia’s favour as the visitors buckled under their own nerves of going behind as their play became sloppy as the goal was in the back of their net for a second time after just eight minutes. Norshahrul was a menace in the right side of Indonesia’s defense once more despite being under pressure from two markers. With slick footwork, he nutmegged his way through the legs of one defender before attempting a shot on goal which was deflected by the defense but only to the path of substitute Ashari Samsudin as the midfielder curled an unstoppable shot into the top-right corner of the goal to spark pandemonium in the stands.
The character of a team is defined by their ability to rally together after a setback and not crumble totally. Alfred Riedl, confident of his team’s chances at the final, must have been pulling his hair out at the easy collapse of his charges as the Indonesians conceded another goal in the 65th minute. The ball was worked onto the right-side yet again as Mahalli Jasuli sent in a tempting cross that Safee, in acres of space after ghosting in between the two central defenders, leaped highest to meet and planted it past Harrison.
A 3-0 scoreline was a bit of a surprise but the Young Tigers would not mind one bit – having exacted revenge for their 5-1 drubbing in the opening match of the tournament and earning a deserved lead going into the second leg.
In the build-up to the second leg, the Malaysian sports minister criticized the local fans for being unsporting and rowdy due to their disturbance and the Indonesian president called for Indonesian fans not to take revenge off the field but rather adopt a sporting behaviour and cheer on the national team to do just that on the field.
The Gelora Bung Karno was a packed stadium as well for the second leg as the visitors tried to withstand waves of Indonesians attack as they laid siege on Khairul Amri’s goal. They were awarded a perfect opportunity to get themselves back into the tie when a handball was spotted in the Malaysian penalty area by Australian referee Peter Green. However, skipper Butina buckled under pressure as he sent a tame kick to the left of Amri. The visitors chered and saluted Amri while the hosts grimaced, especially Butina who wore a forlorn look.
Needing to score goals and keep a clean sheet, they failed in both aspects on 54 minutes when Zulkifli Syukur’s misplaced a pass straight to Ashari who sent the ball into Safee’s path. The striker outpaced the Indonesians defense to score his fifth goal of the tournament and hammer the final nail into the coffin for the Red and Whites.
Now needing five goals to win and running out of time, it was truly mission impossible for them. They did manage to restore some pride towards the end of the game when Mohammad Nasuha equalised for Indonesia on the night as he tucked home a rebound on 72 minutes and Muhammad Ridwan went on to seal a victory in front of the home fans two minutes from time as he beat his marker and cut inside before unleashing a shot on the edge of the penalty area that flew past Amri off a deflection from defender Mohammad Muslim.
Weary legs in the Malaysian team became evident as the toll of playing twice in two days started to show but they held on to the final whistle and hoisted the trophy to the tune of Queen’s We Are The Champions.
For the Merah Putihs, questions will have to be asked of their mental strength and temperaments when it comes to crunch time as they suffered heartache in the final yet again for a record fourth time. In Manianius, they have a gifted midfielder who combines pace with trickery on the ball to create chances out of nothing. However, despite him being a father of 20, his tender age comes with a temperament that is volatile. Reacting to taunts by physically lashing out, his presence in the 2nd leg could have helped the Indonesians cause problems in the Malaysian defences and carve out goal-scoring opportunities. Also, the usually-composed Butina seemed unable to carry the hopes of the nation when most needed as he contrived to miss the penalty – something he is usually known to convert with ease and grace.
For the Harimau Muda, this could be the start of a golden generation for Malaysian football as the core of the national team consists of players with an average age of just below 23. K Rajagopal has done a good job moulding a group of youngsters into an effective unit. The gamble by the Malaysian FA to blood youngsters by thrusting them into thick of senior internationals looked to have paid off as the mental strength in holding firm against despite carrying a 3-0 lead into the second leg shows a maturity beyond their age. Even more enticing is the potential for the link-up between Norshahrul and Safee, whose partnership only started in this tournament and has blossomed into a fulfilling one. Both their styles complement each other, the former a willing runner to chase down lost causes and win possession back while the latter a lethal poacher with a keen eye for goal. With both strikers aged 25 and 26 respectively, there is a lot more time for them to wreck havoc on opposing defences and drive the Malaysian team forward.
On the back of a good showing Asian Games tournament and a successful AFF Suzuki Cup campaign, 2011 could just be the year the Tigers finally fulfil their potential and arise from the ashes after many false dawns in previous incarnations.