Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Kelantan's Late Comeback

With eight minutes remaining on the clock, Kelantan were down and out of the Malaysia Cup. Despite winning the first leg in Kuala Lumpur 2-1 against ATM, or Armed Forces, a first half brace from veteran striker Marlon Alex James had given the visitors the lead and put them on the verge of a finals appearance.

Kelantan though are nothing if not resilient. They came out for the second half more purposeful. The midfield, almost nonexistent in the first 45 minutes, got more involved, harrying the visitors in the centre of the park, depriving James of service.

When ATM could get the ball forward, James was always a threat. Such is his reputation, seven Malaysia Cup goals going in to the game, when he missed what was a fairly simple opportunity by his own high standards ironic cheers echoed round the packed Sultan Muhammad IV stadium in Kota Bharu in the far north east of the Malaysian peninsula.

Substitute Ahmad Fakri pulled a goal back on 81 minutes and the noise level was cranked up another notch. The tie was now delicately poised at 3-3 and could go either way. ATM, who had been content to time waste since James had scored their second goal giving them an aggregate lead, were less slothful when it came to taking free kicks and throw ins.

It was to no avail. The tide had turned and when Badri Radzi equalised with five minutes on the clock it was Kelantan who had one foot in the final.

ATM still had their opportunities though. With the home team pushing for another goal instead of playing safe and keeping possession, they were always liable on the counter attack.

With literally the last kick of the 90 minutes a sweet 20 yard volley by ATM striker Hairuddin Omar sailed literally inches over the crossbar. Minutes later, deep in injury time, Kelantan keeper, Malaysian international Khairul Fahmi reacted with a finger tip save to to keep a goal bound effort out and within seconds, Kelantan were through to their third Malaysia Cup final in five years.

It had been a pulsating cup tie showcasing 'the best two teams in Malaysia' as Kelantan coach Bojan Hodak said after the game and with Pahang drawing 1-1 in Sarawak, coached by former Arema boss Robert Alberts, the following evening in front of another sell out crowd of 20,000 to go through 4-2 on aggregate sets up nicely next weekend's cup final to be held at Shah Alam Stadium in Selangor.

After the game, the ATM coach, B Sathianathan, who coached Kelantan before taking on the Armed Forces, blamed the ref but was quick to point out the role the home support had played in getting behind their team.

Certainly the home support was raucous with plenty of noise throughout the game. Fans of the Indonesian game may even recognize some familiar fan chants though with a slightly different dialect!

While Kelantan have come to see the Malaysia Cup as their own personal property, this will be their fourth appearance in the last five seasons, Pahang have not been so successful. Their last triumph came in 1992 and they have not made the final since 1997.

The Malaysia Cup is the longest running cup competition in Southeast Asia with Singapore defeating Selangor 2-1 in the first ever final held back in 1921.

Those two teams have since dominated the trophy with Selangor winning the venerable trophy 32 times, Singapore, despite withdrawing in 1994, have 24 titles to their date.

The last few seasons though have seen a geographical shift in power in Malaysian football. Selangor's last triumph was in 2005. Since then Kelantan, Kedah and Negeri Sembilan have lifted the trophy on two occasions while Perlis have one win to their name. In the history of Malaysian football those four clubs have been serial underachievers, minnows to be steamrollered by mighty Selangor.

But while this season's final will be between two of the more traditional state teams, less football clubs in the traditional sense of the word and more football associations, there is a feeling that in Malaysia there is another shift on the horizon.

With the national team winning the ASEAN Football Federation Cup in 2010 and back to back SEA Games titles, the regional dominance is slowly trickling down to the domestic competition. ATM were one of the first clubs to start ploughing serious money into the squad while the likes of Sime Darby and Johor Darul Takzim have also been splashing the cash; JDT have added for Argentine international Pablo Aimar to their ranks for the next campaign.

Unfancied T Team from the north eastern state of Terangganu last season boasted George Boateng, former Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, and Caleb Forlan, a former Republic of Ireland international.

There is still a stench of match fixing though. A recent Malaysia Cup tie is thought to have been suspicious with one of the teams involved acting quickly in reporting their doubts to the Football Association of Malaysia.

Next week's showpiece final will be an 80,000 plus sell out as the east coast empties. The final always is. Yet, despite the longetivity of the competition and the crowds it attracts the cup remains little known outside of Malaysia.

Within Malaysia though, a new professionalism is taking the game to greater heights. Serious TV money has changed the coverage and the Malaysia Cup now boasts a new sponsor, a multinational pharmacy; gone are the days of state owned enterprises and tobacco firms plastering their names on player’s shirts.

Next week's final promises to be a special sporting event. 

SOURCE - My column from today's Jakarta Globe but not on line yet

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