The end of Dollah Salleh tenure as Malaysia’s head coach was preceded by a double figure scoreline. Speaking after the 10-0 World Cup qualifying defeat in the United Arab Emirates, the frustrated 51-year old subsequently resigned his post. “A national disgrace,” ranted Salleh when taking about the biggest defeat in the nation’s footballing history. The country is after all no minnow on the Asian continent but the 2010 ASEAN champions and the 2011 U-23 South East Asia champions. There were high hopes for the national squad. Five days after the disaster, the setting off of smoke bombs and flares by enraged fans after their team had gone 2-1 down even forced the abandonment of the home game against Saudi Arabia.
The hope now is for a foreigner to get Malaysia’s team out of the mess they are currently in. The country is therefore following a trend in Asia. “I’ve always favoured foreign coaches;” said the football association’s president Ahmad Shah before announcing his intention to gradually step down. The time is right for a new beginning. Malaysia is almost certain not to be a part of the World Cup in Russia. Integrated into the World Cup qualifying competition, the country is also highly unlikely to participate at the 2019 Asia Championship. A foreign coach will therefore have a lot of time to get acquainted with the team and the country in general.
Malaysia would be continuing a trend. AFC, the Asian federation, has 47 members and 30 have secured the services of a foreigner as their head coaches. The majority (18) are European of which three are German. Ulrich Stielike, a World Cup runner-up in 1982, is coaching in South Korea and led the East Asians to the final of the Asian Championship in January. His countryman Bernd Stange, the former East Germany head coach, is in charge in Singapore. His biggest success – a sensational 0-0 away draw against Japan in June.
At the helm in Afghanistan is Slaven Skeledzic, a former youth team coach at Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover 96. “I want to develop a modern style of football in Afghanistan, like the one in Europe. The philosophy and corresponding coaching methods should then be transferred to the junior teams,” said Skeledzic when introduced to the press in February.
It is what most nations are attempting – the foreigners are there to improve the football in the country, especially tactically. The national teams are the benchmarks for the grass roots and up. Expectations are high but they vary just like the various cultures united within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Skeledzic has built the foundations in Afghanistan, Bernd Stange has to put Singapore in a position so that they are challenging the continent’s top teams and Stielike has to at least reach the last 16 at a World Cup. The amount of pressure on the coaches is the same no matter whether one is Afghanistan or in South Korea. Ultimately, it is results that determine how they are judged.
One shouldn’t forget it was foreigners that left big footsteps to follow in Asian football. Dutchman Guus Hiddink reached the World Cup semifinals with South Korea in 2002 and guided Australia to the 2006 World Cup. Frenchman Philippe Troussier won the 2000 Asian Championship with Japan, reached the final of the 2001 Confederations Cup and the last 16 at the 2002 World Cup. Or there is the Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira who took each of Kuwait, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia to the World Cup finals.
It all whets the appetite. Mohamed Shaweed, the head of the Maldives football association, recently spoke of an agreement with a coach that had once led a nation to a World Cup finals. Shaweed was not letting on who it was but for a country like the Maldives participating at the World Cup in Russia is akin to a utopian pipe dream – even with a Hiddink or a Parreira on the touchline. Football there is not professionally organised enough for the gap to be closed with a single appointment. Big defeats like the ones still suffered by, at most San Marino or Gibraltar, are therefore the order of the day in the World Cup qualifying competition for many Asian countries, despite having foreign coaches in charge. Myanmar with head coach Radojko Avramovic lost 9-0 in Kuwait at the start of the month, Laos with the Englishman David Booth were thrashed 8-0 by South Korea and East Timor, coached by Brazilian Emerson Alcantara went down 7-0 in Saudi Arabia. Normality in the AFC.
Englishman Terry Singh, a former youth team coach at Premier League Leicester City and currently at the Chinese elite sport university in Beijing, believes the influence foreigners can have in Asia is only limited. “Though foreign coaches help football associations to think professionally, they take longer to develop players than local ones,” said Singh when talking about his many years working within the game in China. The cultural differences and the language barriers are often almost impossible to overcome if the whole set-up lacks adequate professional structures.