Ong Kim Swee aims to prove critics wrong in Malaysia's SEA Games
As Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) celebrate a fourth consecutive Malaysia Super League (MSL) title this week, the nation's previously unloved under-22 side have a golden chance to upstage them.
The football competition of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games begins on Monday, with the young Malaysians coming into the tournament on home soil riding a wave of confidence. Last month, they defied the odds to qualify, alongside the likes of Japan, South Korea and Australia, for January's U23 AFC Championship in China.
For Datuk Ong Kim Swee, who was dumped as national boss in March, it will be a chance to prove a point to those who doubted him.
That includes JDT's owner, the Crown Prince of Johor (TMJ), who was a vocal critic of the bespectacled coach before the former became FAM boss in March.
There was more than a hint of irony this week when TMJ congratulated Ong's U22 squad on their achievement of coming through July's qualification tournament in Bangkok where they topped a group that included regional powerhouses Thailand and Indonesia, plus Mongolia. TMJ even confidently predicted that the developmental side would now claim the football gold medal in the multi-sports festival, while talking of extending Ong's contract.
The remarkable part of the young Malaysians' journey to success is how it was achieved despite the absence of six of their normal starters, due to ongoing matches in the MSL and Malaysia Cup. Not one member of TMJ's champion side travelled to Bangkok where Malaysia won two of their three matches.
The likes of JDT's outstanding winger Safawi Rasid, defender Dominic Tan and goalkeeper Haziq Nadzli were all absent, in addition to Pahang defender Matthew Davies, and Penang forward S. Kumaahran.
Considering that Davies is Pahang's captain, and Kumaahran's Penang are in a relegation dogfight, it is understandable that that pair was missing. But given JDT's embarrassment of riches -- head coach Ulisses Morais boasted last month that he had 29 players at his disposal for the first team -- it makes the lack of support from the southern state harder to swallow.
Ong had the same problem when he was senior national coach. JDT were reluctant to release their players for national camps, or they would arrive late, and we also saw the en-masse international retirement last year of four Johor players, including captain Safiq Rahim. The quartet has since unretired after the appointment of Portugal's Nelo Vingada in the top job.
Even so, with JDT fully committed to Vingada's debut match in charge at their beloved Larkin Stadium in Johor Bahru, Malaysia still contrived to lose their opening Asian Cup qualifier to an under-strength Lebanon on June 13.
If it comes down to pure coaching skill, Ong, and his assistants Brad Maloney and Kris Yong, deserve kudos. Somehow, from a mostly farcical training camp -- who could forget the sight of a squad of three injured players doing extended pool recovery sessions as they waited for more than a dozen latecomers -- the Malaysians beat Myanmar in a friendly, thrashed Indonesia, and responded to a defeat to Thailand to edge Mongolia to qualify.
The preparation for the SEA Games has been a lot more measured. During an eight-day camp, Ong has worked with a squad of 27 players, including four from both JDT teams, which will be trimmed to 20 over the weekend. The opening match is against minnows Brunei, with a showdown against Singapore looming on Aug. 16.
Defending champions Thailand will be in the much tougher Group A, which also boasts Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines, in addition to Timor-Leste and Cambodia.
As for JDT, their title celebrations haven't been as enthusiastic as they might have been, after clinching the MSL last Saturday when their nearest rivals, Kedah, lost to third-placed Pahang.
JDT, themselves, were also on the wrong end of the score-line as they fell to a second consecutive defeat to Selangor at Selayang Stadium on the same night.
The Southern Tigers should be praised for their professionalism, and dedication to success. But until they can compete on the regional stage -- we are talking about the AFC Champions League, not the secondary AFC Cup which they won in 2015 -- they will be no more than the kings of a very small castle that few people in the greater Asian football world pay any attention to.
To be honest, many of Johor's usual rivals were in no shape to mount any kind of league title challenge this season. Despite their two wins over JDT in different competitions this year, Selangor's cash problems saw them set a preseason target of simply avoiding relegation. 2012 treble winners Kelantan also had financial issues, and were docked points for failure to complete their player registrations by the assigned deadline.
Pahang saw their head coach Dollah Salleh suspended for insulting a referee, while Kedah suffered through a saga of losing their manager Tan Cheng Hoe to the national set up as Vingada's assistant.
While Portugal's Ulisses Morais did well to win eight of 11 matches after taking over from Ben Mora in June, it would have been more difficult to shoot fish in a bucket than not steer the runaway leaders to yet another MSL title.
Which is why Ong Kim Swee will be the true hero, and master coach, should he win a second SEA Games title in six years after overseeing a glorious campaign in Jakarta in 2011. And if he does, be prepared for more former critics to jump on the victory bandwagon.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.