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 By Jason Dasey

Nelo Vingada: Malaysia players are 'fantastic', can still make Asian Cup

Malaysia national coach Nelo Vingada
Malaysia coach Nelo Vingada sits down for an exclusive interview with ESPN FC in Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR -- New national coach Nelo Vingada says Malaysia are still capable of making the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, despite a disastrous start to their qualifying campaign in which they fell to a last-minute 2-1 home defeat against Lebanon.

In an exclusive interview with ESPN FC, Vingada refused to criticise his players, calling them "special and fantastic" and like his "sons".

And he compared Malaysia's collapse against Lebanon on June 13, when they conceded two goals in the last 15 minutes to blow a lead, to Real Madrid's late defeat to Barcelona towards the end of the 2016-17 La Liga season.

"Even if we won, it would not be easy [to qualify for the Asian Cup]," Vingada said. "Of course, a loss or a draw would have been better than to lose, but still we are in position that we can do it.

"I believe now that by watching more games, more players, we will be better prepared for the next match. All of the [Malaysia] players were fantastic. They did a great job [against Lebanon}... they ran, they fought.

Jason Dasey talks with Malaysia U22 manager Ong Kim Swee following his side's return from China.
Jason Dasey speaks with Felda United's Dino Djulbic to discuss his expectations at his new club.

"I believe in the future that we can maybe bring in some new players, work in training and repeat situations, and, for sure, the players can perform better than now."

Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) has been in damage-control mode in the wake of a fans' and media backlash after the disappointing loss at Larkin Stadium to a Lebanese side missing their Malaysia-based superstar striker Mohammed Ghaddar.

Despite the full support of champion club Johor Darul Ta'zim in terms of player availability and use of facilities in Johor Bahru, the Malaysians seemed no better than under previous boss Datuk Ong Kim Swee.

The FAM Facebook page was quick to post words of encouragement from Vingada's old coaching partner Carlos Queiroz and FAM general-secretary Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin, who asked for time and trust.

It also reported praise of the new-look Malaysian squad's quality from an unnamed player and coach from the Lebanese squad.

But Vingada doesn't seem to be feeling any pressure, denying that his new charges are mentally weak, or lack tactical discipline.

"We lost in the last, last second, so it was hard for us to lose in such kind of conditions. But there were many positive things," he said. "During 75 minutes, the team gave a very good answer, it played very well in the match.

"You go anywhere in the world and big teams, small teams, fantastic teams, lose in the last minutes. I think one of the reasons we were quite tired over the last 15 minutes was due to the situation of the players fasting during Ramadan. It made our situation a little more difficult.

"But you remember one or two months ago, Real Madrid were 2-2 against Barcelona until they conceded a goal in the last second. Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Cup final [against Manchester United] lost 2-1 in overtime. So it happens to all teams."

Vingada agreed that the next qualifier against Hong Kong -- on Sep. 5 at Larkin Stadium -- would be crucial to Malaysia's chances of being one of the two teams from Group B to book a place at United Arab Emirates 2019.

"Of course, we have to win, but first we have to fight. And after that, we can win," he said, before mentioning that he would like to organise two friendlies in August when the squad is due to come together again for centralised training.

"The team is the most important thing. All of them for me. In family we have sons, all of them are important for me. All of them are very special."

Coach Nelo Vingada and Malaysia national team
Nelo Vingada only started work with the full Malaysia squad at the end of May.

The majority of Vingada's success came more than 20 years ago, when he helped Portugal win consecutive Under-20 World Cups as an assistant to Queiroz in 1989 and 1991, and lifting the 1996 Asian Cup, as head coach of Saudi Arabia.

But he defended his record since claiming the 2010 K-League and cup double with FC Seoul. In the following seven years, in China, Iran, India and now Malaysia, his winning percentage is slightly above 25 percent.

"In 2010, I was in Korea and we were champions, and we did a fantastic job in the cup and the league," Vingada said. "After that, I was in China with Dalian [Shide] and it wasn't possible to win the league. You cannot always be champions.

"But even when you are in a small team, sometimes you can do even better work in a professional way. I was in Jordan for two years [between 2007 and 2009], and we didn't have great success, but I believe I did one of the best jobs in my career because we changed many things.

"And this is the same situation here. Of course, no one can expect Malaysia can be champions of Asia, but bringing the national team and local football to another level for me will mean as much success as when I was champions of Asia with Saudi Arabia in 1996."

Jose Mourinho with Porto in 2004
Like Jose Mourinho, Nelo Vingada cut his managerial teeth in his native Portugal.

Vingada signed a two-year contract with Malaysia on May 15 for his first coaching assignment in Southeast Asia.

Like his countryman Jose Mourinho, he had modest success as a player, and began life in management in his 20s.

Both Vingada and Mourinho played for the Belenenses club in Lisbon, where Vingada was also a manager in the 1981-82 season.

How Vingada would love to replicate Mourinho's Cinderella story of his first season at Manchester United by qualifying for a major competition in dramatic fashion. 

Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.

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