To ensure that coach Ong Kim Swee’s (Second from right) Under-22 squad are able to have a fighting chance to qualify for the AFC Under-23 Championship final round in Bangkok next year, everyone involved must fully cooperate and support them by putting national interest above all else. (PIC BY AZHAR RAMLI)

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PHNOM PENH: After a positive outcome on the international stage last year, the start to this year has been less than impressive following the failure of the national Under-22 (U-22) side to reach the semi-finals of the AFF U-22 Championship here in Cambodia yesterday (Friday).

Based on the achievements throughout last year, the national U-22 squad had an impressive run when they made history by advancing to the semi-finals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Championship in Kunshan, China for the very first time where they went down fighting to mighty South Korea who won 2-1.

The good run of form continued in the Indonesia Asian Games which saw Ong Kim Swee’s charges once more stealing the limelight when they stunned South Korea, who had Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung Min upfront, with an emphatic 1-0 victory to emerge tops in Group E before they went down to Japan in the next round.

The impressive run was matched by the national senior side in the AFF Cup campaign when Tan Cheng Hoe’s charges went against all odds to reach the two legged final against Vietnam even though they were not given much of a chance at the beginning.

However the Harimau Malaya squad’s hopes of emulating the triumphant 2010 winning squad were dashed when the lost 3-2 on aggregate to eventual champions Vietnam.

Nobody can question or deny that the success achieved last year by the national U-22 and senior squads was down to pure hard work and sheer determination of the players and coaches, though it also has to be pointed out that both squad’s were also strengthened by the presence of the country’s top players throughout last year.

It has to be noted that if the national U-22 squad had the cooperation and understanding from all the Malaysia League (M-League) teams to release the players that were called up for national duty, specifically for the AFF U-22 Championship in Cambodia, perhaps Malaysia could have not only advanced from the group stage, but also even go on to win the championship for the very first time.

Not to undermine any of the other national teams competing in the championship, but Kim Swee did not have the services of eight stalwarts whom he had initially called up, as they were either not released by their respective teams or were out because of injury, so if Kim Swee had a full strength squad at his disposal, the outcome could have been different to say the least.

The eight players are none other than Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) trio Syamer Kutty Abba, Safawi Rasid, and Akhyar Rashid, along with Syahmi Safari (Selangor), Felda United duo Muhammad Daniel Amier Norhisham and Muhammad Zahril Azri Zabri, as well as Muhammad Faisal Abdul Halim (Pahang) and Mohd Fadzrul Danel Mohd Nizam (Kedah).

However, the performance shown by the squad during their run in the championship is still something to be proud of, as other players bravely stepped up, such as Japan based forward Hadi Fayyadh Abdul Razak, who netted two goals throughout the championship run in Group B.

The lanky striker who plays for Japanese second tier club Fagiano Okayama showed that he has a lethal touch upfront and Kim Swee will be counting on him to deliver during the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers in Kuala Lumpur next month.

Pahang defender R. Dinesh also emerged as one of the unheralded standout performers from the championship, as he proved to be a dependable lynchpin for the U-22 side’s backline.

The 21-year-old defender was ever-present as he played in all three matches, standing out for his work rate and daringness not just in defence, but for his tireless efforts to build on attacking moves and forays into the opposition’s half.

He is determined to make the left back position his own and wants to help the team in their next big assignment, the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers.

“I have given it my all here in Cambodia, and I am really hoping that I will be retained for the qualifiers next month, as I want to play for our country at such a level and higher even.

“We are gaining in confidence despite the mixed results, and I firmly believe that we can go the distance once we begin our quest in the qualifiers,” stressed Dinesh.

Therefore to ensure that Kim Swee’s squad are able to have a fighting chance to qualify for the AFC Championship final round in Bangkok next year, everyone involved must fully cooperate and support them by putting national interest above all else.