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Inside Malaysia's new golden generation's hunt for AFF Suzuki Cup glory - Safawi Rasid and Mukhair Ajmal reveal all

05:46 GMT+3 19/12/2021
Safawi Rasid Malaysia
The gifted midfielder and his more experienced team-mate are full of ambition ahead of a crucial Indonesia clash

Coming into the tournament as one of the favourites, having reached the final of the 2018 edition, Malaysia have had a mixed start to this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup.

Having brushed off Cambodia and Laos with relative ease, the Harimau Malaya were made to look very ordinary by defending champions Vietnam in their third group fixture. Unable to cope with the blur of red shirts zipping around in front of them, they fell to a 0-3 defeat to the Golden Stars, and following Indonesia’s draw against the same opponent now sit third in Group B with just one game left to be played.

That game, of course, is against the Garudas themselves, with the clash on the 19th set to function as a de facto semi-final playoff match.

Speaking exclusively to GOAL, star men Safawi Rasid and Mukhairi Ajmal were under no illusions about the magnitude of the task in front of them.

“Indonesia vs Malaysia is a game that both sets of fans love watching,” revealed Safawi. “Our fans have boosted our morale, and it’s made us even more excited.”

“I feel proud to have the chance to play in this fixture. It’s a big opportunity for both myself and Malaysia to reach the semi-finals- we’re not going to let it slip,” added Mukhairi.

In comparison with the squad they took to the last Suzuki Cup, it’s notable that Malaysia have opted for a significantly higher number of young players this time. With seasoned pros like Farizal Marlias, Norshahrul Idlan, Zaquan Adha and Mohamadou Sumareh all missing out, the chance is there for some of Malaysia’s young guns to seize the initiative and announce themselves on the regional stage.

For Mukhairi, who made his debut just this year, this is a huge opportunity he is more than ready to grasp.

“For me, this is a new experience. I’ve had the chance to learn, and I feel this is a good chance for me and the team to improve. Safawi’s been playing in the AFF for a while, and I can use this chance to improve. This is something that’s good for Malaysian youth,” he said.

“I feel happy that I have this chance, and I will do my best to grab it and show my potential. I will try to perform well for the team.”

Speaking about the strides Malaysian football has made in recent years, 24-year-old Safawi attributed the improvement to the country’s increased focus on youth development.

Aside from head coach Tan Cheng Hoe making it a point to incorporate more young talents into his sides, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) has also been looking to create better pathways for youngsters to become full-fledged internationals.

“This is a very good chance for the young players. There are some seniors in the squad with us, and I feel by working as a team we can continue to excel,” revealed Mukhairi. 

“Malaysian football is improving because the coach and the FAM have begun taking on young players, like Ajmal, Luqman Hakim, Ariff Aiman. It’s a long-term plan for Malaysia,” added Safawi.

Despite the less-experienced roster this time round, Safawi was confident they have what it takes to go one better than 2018 and bring the trophy back to Kuala Lumpur. 

“This year we need to improve. If we can, we want to reach the final, because in 2018 we were runners up. It’s not impossible to be champions this year,” he said confidently.

“Coming into this tournament, our goals were teamwork and spirit, because those are two hugely important things for the team to succeed. In football there are no individuals, only teams, so I feel teamwork, spirit and character are the most important.”

However, the defeat to Vietnam was one which put a big, albeit not insurmountable dent in the Malaysians’ title charge. Having been run ragged in the first half, in which a blitz of Vietnamese attacks saw the Tigers concede twice in the space of four minutes, Malaysia put up a much better showing in the second half, restricting the Golden Stars to a small number of half chances, but ultimately conceded a third goal one minute from time which put the game beyond them. Truth be told, it had been beyond them for a while already.

“We all know Vietnam’s quality. We knew they had good players and lots of experience from the Asian Cup,” admitted Safawi.

“The first and second games were good warm-ups for us to gain confidence for Vietnam. But it wasn’t to be. We’ll learn from it and do our best against Indonesia to get to the semi-finals.”

“As footballers, we felt sad when we lost,” added Mukhairi. “After that game, the dressing room was quiet. We were happy with the first two games, but it was really quiet, really sad because we didn’t get the three points. We knew we had to wake up and focus on the next game.”

Unfortunately for Malaysia, the result might not even have been the biggest loss of the night. Just 24 minutes in, captain Aidil Zafuan went down holding his leg, and despite a prolonged spell of treatment was unable to continue. It was a crushing blow to the Harimau Malaya - already short on experience, losing their leader and one of their best centre halves so early in the game, and the tournament, was massive. It wasn’t long after his departure that the floodgates began to open for Vietnam.

“For us, it was a big blow. He’s a very experienced player in our squad, so I hope the other players can step up and fill in for him with a good performance against Indonesia,” said Safawi.

“We all believe that the players the coach has picked are the best players in Malaysia. But he’ll be out a long time. He’s damaged a big muscle. It’ll take time.”

With the Indonesia game looming, Safawi and Mukhairi were quietly confident in their ability as a team to get the result they require. Also significant to them was the fact that Malaysia’s ticket allocation for the match at Kallang has been sold out, which means they will be greeted by over 5000 of their own fans when they take to the pitch on Sunday. Far from ramping up the pressure, the presence of the ekor harimau, or tiger’s tail, is set to spur the team on even more,

“For us, it’s been very long, two years we haven’t played in front of our fans. This time, it’s an international tournament, and a chance not just for us, but also for the supporters to watch a good performance from us and Indonesia. We will do all we can to reach the semi-finals,” stated Safawi.

“We need to work together, and keep a strong mentality. We know they’re a good team, so we have to be ready in all aspects.”

In a way, it’s poetic that Malaysia’s chances of reaching the semi-finals will be decided by a match against Indonesia. For Safawi, who is set to spearhead the Tigers’ attack in that game, Sunday is a chance to make amends for a Malaysia debut which went horribly wrong.

“My debut came against Indonesia at the 2016 Nations Cup- we lost 3-0. Since then, I’ve improved a lot, step by step as a player, and on the 19th, we meet Indonesia again,” he said with a wry smile.

Having named wing wizards Lionel Messi and Riyad Mahrez as his footballing idols, the JDT man will need every bit of their trickery if he is to unlock the uncompromising Garudas backline at the weekend.

With Toni Kroos-protégé Mukhairi Ajmal behind him, they will certainly take some stopping.