Column, Four-Four-Two, May 2015.
HARIMAU MUDA HEADING TOWARDS EXTINCTION
EIGHT years into its existence, the Harimau Muda program – created in order to compensate for the lack of exposure for national youth players en route to becoming full-fledged internationals - is in danger of being consigned into the wilderness.
In fact it is in danger of going extinct.
No surprise there, for critics of the program have been going for FA of Malaysia’s jugular since last year, exacerbated by the national Under-22 team’s failure to go beyond the group stage of the AFC Asian Cup Under-23 qualifiers recently.
Falling at the first hurdle against Japan and Vietnam was not acceptable, not when most of head coach Razip Ismail’s lieutenants have had the opportunity to hone their skills in Slovakia, Singapore and Australia.
Two of the biggest critics of the program are the Youth and Sports Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, who was the deputy president of FAM from 2007 to 2010, and Johor Darul Ta’zim chief, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim.
Naturally they feel FAM ought to scrap the program. But we should not throw the baby out with the bath water.
What the program needs is certain modification and more transparency.
While Tunku Ismail is in favour of releasing the players back to their respective clubs so that the boys would learn to cope with the daily demands of the M-League, there is no guarantee of playing time for the Under-21s.
When the Harimau Muda program was launched in 2007, the idea was to assemble the cream of the crop so that they grow together in the same environment, under the same coaching methods with the right amount of intensity and international exposure.
Above all they were paid to play full-time. The only thing missing was a competitive league for them to compete in.
The idea came into being following the fairly successful co-operation between the National Sports Council (NSC) and FAM, in which the government agency adopted the national Under-20 side that qualified on merit for the Asian Youth Championship in Kolkatta in 2006.
Thanks to the MoU, Datuk K. Rajagobal saw the likes of Safiq Rahim, Aidil Zafuan and Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak, Amar Rohidan, Bunyamin Umar and Nashriq Baharom, who were not yet on the payroll of their States, be given a monthly allowance of RM2,500.
Overseas training stints were bankrolled by the NSC.
Subsequently FAM formed a team that competed in the Premier League, with Rajagobal given ample time and space to nurture unpolished gems such as K. Gurusamy, Mahalli Jasuli and Khairul Fahmi Che Mat into reliable players.
The subsequent generations helmed by Datuk Ong Kim Swee and Azraai Khor Abdullah were later shipped to Slovakia.
Eventually a broader base was created encompassing the Under-23 team as Harimau Muda, the Under-21 outfit as Harimau Muda B and the Under-17s as Harimau Muda.
Looking back further, there were two prime examples of a similar project yet with contrasting outcome, first the Harimau team in 1983 coached by Abdullah Mohamad and the 1997 FIFA World Youth Cup, helmed by Hatem Souissi, which spawned the Olympic 2000 project.
The Harimau team were formed by FAM in order to create a back-up squad that would succeed the golden generation that boasted Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh and the rest.
Defenders Razip Ismail, Kamarulzaman Yusof, P. Dharmalingam, midfielders Lahad Daduk Sulik, Faridzul Kassim, Azizol Abu Haniffah and attackers Karim Pin and Azlan Johar emerged through this system.
In 1984, English legend Kevin Keegan was paid a whopping RM150,000 (the quantum triples by today’s standards) for a one month stint to serve as player-cum-coach for the Merdeka Tournament. Some of the team members became established internationals.
Despite a less than impressive tournament in the 1997 World Youth Cup, the team comprising Tengku Hazman Raja Hassan, Das Gregory Kolopis, Sany Fahmi, Rosle Derus and aided by Khalid Jamlus were retained to form the Olympic 2000 team that competed in the Premier League in 1998.
However only Khalid and Tengku Hazman rose through the ranks and played for the national team.
The Harimau Muda concept has produced players such as Fadhli Shas, Irfan Fazail, Izham Tarmizi Roslan, Gary Steven Robbat, Amer Saidin and Fandi Othman - all happened to be snapped up by JDT once they severed ties with FAM.
If the various teams under the Harimau Muda program were considered failures, then the State FAs or clubs have no business in hiring them.
If the Harimau Muda program is retained and enhanced, FAM has to decide where best to place the team – whether in Europe, Australia or the stronger Asian nations.
If the program is scrapped, FAM will need to make sure the emerging players are given the room to express their talent through regulation that guarantees them playing time. So which path do we take?
Then again, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.