SINGAPORE — For the first half of the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship's 25-year history, Malaysia were struggling with underachievement.
While they earned an encouraging runners-up finish in the inaugural 1996 tournament, it was achieved with ageing veterans Zainal Abidin Hassan and Dollah Salleh, and the ensuing years saw the Harimau Malaya unable to adequately replace them.
They reached the AFF Championship semi-finals for four consecutive tournaments in the 2000s, yet could not make the breakthrough to reach the finals, much less win the competition. To make things worse, arch-rivals Singapore were enjoying a fruitful decade in winning the Cup thrice, rubbing salt into the wounds of a football-mad nation.
But it all changed in 2010 when Malaysia finally made the breakthrough to clinch their first Suzuki Cup title under wily coach K Rajagopal and sharpshooter Safee Sali. Since then, they have come close to adding a second title in 2014 and 2018, but were thwarted in the finals by regional powerhouses Thailand and Vietnam respectively.
That lone triumph in 2010 has nonetheless allowed Malaysia to shed their underachievers tag, and their surprise showing in 2018 - when they stunningly defeated Thailand in the semi-finals - has fuelled optimism for another decade of good performances under current coach Tan Cheng Hoe.
Form of key players uncertain ahead of competition
At the upcoming 2020 Suzuki Cup in Singapore, Malaysia are drawn in Group B with Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. Beating Indonesia will be key in their bid to advance out of the group with tournament favourites Vietnam.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has created much uncertainty in the forms of their key players. Captain Aidil Zafuan has been a reliable rock in defence for much of the past decade, but at 34 years of age, concerns grow on his dependability to stop speedy youngsters in the region.
Meanwhile, forward Safawi Rasid has been woefully off-form this year, with his goals and assists drying up alarmingly. Coach Tan may have to look elsewhere for creative sparks for his team.
At least he has the option of looking towards the national Under-22 squad, which managed to qualify for the 2022 U-23 Asian Cup for only the second time in history. The Young Tigers have been providing a steady source of national-team-ready players since the 2010 Suzuki Cup triumph, and this competition could well see some of the U-22 youngsters catching the eye.
Tan is also likely to have secured the services of overseas-based Luqman Hakim Shamsudin (with Belgian side KV Kortrijk) and Dion Cools (Danish side FC Midtjylland) for the competition.
Nonetheless, one would be hard-pressed to put the money on Malaysia winning their second Suzuki Cup, with Thailand and Vietnam continuing to be formidable obstacles along the way.
Reaching the semi-finals should be the least their fans are expecting, and who knows, if their key players should somehow hit peak form, they could surprise again like they did in 2018.