February 11, 2004

SOCCER SERMONS: Malaysia too easy for Japan

By Michael Church

Even by the normally tepid standards of friendly matches, Saturday's attempt at a competitive fixture between Japan and Malaysia turned out to be little more than a training exercise for Zico and his troops.
The ease with which Japan disposed of K. Rajagopal's disjointed team did little to warm the hearts and hands of those who had made the effort to trek out to Kashima Stadium on a miserably cold February evening.
The one question that circulated before --and has continued to be asked since--the game against the South East Asian side was a simple, 'Why Malaysia?' Apart from allowing the team to secure an easy, confidence boosting win, the only answer which seems pertinent is that this game was to act as preparation for the March 31 World Cup qualifying clash against Singapore.
Certainly the teams share similar physical attributes but, for Zico's boys in blue, Saturday's match turned out to be a waste of time due, in part, to a late change of heart within the Football Association of Malaysia over the makeup of the team that would travel to Japan.
Originally it was expected that Englishman Allan Harris would bring his squad of Olympic hopefuls, plus a number of senior internationals, to face Mitsuo Ogasawara and company. And while that might not sound too impressive, it's not the cop out that it might initially appear.
Under Harris, a former assistant of Terry Venables during his time with Barcelona, the Malaysian Olympic team has qualified for the final phase of Asia's qualifying tournament and the team boasts some of the most exciting talent to emerge in South East Asia in recent years. Striker Akmal Rizal, who has had short stints with clubs in Germany and France, is just one of the players leading the way back for a nation which, three decades ago, was among the continent's elite.
After the evidence of Saturday night's duck shoot, a game against Harris' side would surely have been more of a test and would certainly have provided more suitable preparation for the Singapore game.
While Singapore should provide little in the way of a challenge to a full-strength Japan, the players that will face Zico's team in the island-nation next month will be younger, fresher and better prepared than the Malaysian squad which was thrown together in such a hurry.
And while the game served its purpose of bringing the squad together to shake off the cobwebs of the close season, in many respects it was the latest in a long line of pointless exercises since Zico ascended into his position as national team boss.
The only saving grace this time, perhaps, was he was not able to recall his overseas based players as he did for those meaningless games against Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal in the second half of last year.
Perhaps instead the Japan Football Association should have sought to switch the opposition faced by the national team and the Olympic side; a match against Iran's under-23s would have been a much sterner test than the incompetent Malaysians.
With their physical power and comfort on the ball, the skilful Iranians gave Masakuni Yamamoto's boys a thorough workout, perhaps tougher than they will face in March's Olympic qualifiers against the Untied Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Lebanon. Any J.League club still scrambling around for talent for the coming season and open minded enough to consider players from within Asia would have benefited from a trip out to Saitama on Sunday evening.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"