Tuesday, December 28, 2010

One of the most outstanding shows for Malaysia to remember By CALEB KHEW

The following article was published in The Star today. I agree 150% with what the author, a Mr. Caleb Khew says here:

I HAD doubts about going to Bukit Jalil today. I didn’t have a ticket, plus I wasn’t sure whether I will be able to snag one if I made it there.

Not to mention that we are facing the form team of the tournament. In the end I decided to go, praying that there will be tickets remaining. As it turned out, there were plenty of tickets remaining.

I gladly bought mine, and went into the stadium a good three hours before kickoff. Going in so early ensured that my friends and I got fantastic seats, with a great view of everything.

Indonesia had thrashed us 5-1 in the group stage, a result that had most of the nation up in arms over the state of our football. Of course, these are the general fans (calling them fans is a bit of a stretch) who know next to nothing about the team and only know how to criticise.

But lo and behold, we made it to the final and suddenly there is mass interest in our team again. I guess success is the only way to drum up interest from the casual fans but their fickleness gets to me at times. Criticism from people who know nothing is the worst kind of criticism.

The emergence of the players from the tunnel resulted in a 100,000 strong ovation, which television simply did not do justice to.

Being part of the crowd was electrifying; the atmosphere, unreal. The ultras brought along their kompangs, fireworks and flares as per usual, creating an atmosphere inside Bukit Jalil that few stadiums anywhere in the world could hope to match.

Singing Negaraku along with 100,000 people, you could feel the goosebumps developing. Have you ever been part of a 100,000 strong crowd, experiencing the exact same emotions? I have.

Ther was one thing I felt tarnished our victory ever so slightly – the constant use of the lasers to distract the opposition as well as the flinging of fireworks and shooting explosives onto the pitch.

As a football purist, I find it disgusting, and the very real danger of having the match called off was not something I wanted to happen at all. Not to mention that it would probably endanger our team and travelling fans in the return leg.

But as a fan, I will admit that it was pretty fun to watch and be a part of. I wanted to chant along to the song everyone seemed to know. Sadly, I didn’t know the lyrics. It doesn’t mean I am any less of a fan. I just haven’t been to as many games.

I will learn this song.

As for the game, Malaysia totally dominated, creating more clear-cut chances, as well as having many more shots on target. Official stats listed us as having eight shots on target against one from Indonesia. Not very hard to figure why we won then.

I also saw a fan carrying an octopus with Malaysia inscribed below it. If an octopus says we are gonna win, who can argue with that?

The opening goal was a thing of beauty with Norsharul Idlan Talaha displaying terrific balance and did fantastically well to win possession as well as keep the ball in play on the byline before jinking past one challenge and squaring to Mohd Safee Sali, who had the simplest task of slotting the ball home.

Cue pandemonium. I can’t really remember what happened for the next two minutes, I just know that I reached a whole new level of euphoria during that time.

I was jumping up and down in my friend’s cup of sirap Bandung as well. My slippers were wet with pink drink. And I didn’t care at all, not a single iota.

However, what was extremely stupid was the launching of a firework onto the pitch during the celebrations, which exploded directly in front of one of our players. Good thing nothing terrible happened but it could have been worse.

I am all for the ultras but some common sense would be nice. The flares were a nice touch though. For a few moments, I felt like Bukit Jalil was an entirely different place; the atmosphere had reached a whole new level. It felt more like the San Siro. If you don’t know what that is, Google it.

The second goal was also brilliant with Norsharul again providing the assist. Taking out two defenders with a world-class turn (yes I said world class), he then slalomed past another defender before putting in a low cross, which took a deflection off an Indonesian defender before Mohd Ashaari slammed the ball into the top corner via the goalkeeper’s fingers. Stunning, absolutely stunning.

Mass pandemonium resumed, and I went back to my little happy place for another two minutes.

The third goal was scored by Safee again, with a neat little header from a beautiful early cross from Mahali bin Jasuli. You only see crosses like that in FIFA, such was its accuracy and execution.

Mass pandemonium again. In fact that whole 12-minute period was one constant high. I nearly lost my phone as well, but in this circumstance, I really couldn’t care less. I didn’t want the game to end, everything was perfect.

I’m a huge Manchester United fan and I celebrate every goal they score with enthusiasm and joy.

However, it is a totally different story when your country scores.

I am Malaysian and therefore I am connected to my national team in a way that no other team will ever be. Every goal the team scores is for us, all 26 million of us.

I will never forget the three goals they scored against Indonesia in the AFF tournament first-leg final and it only confirms why I love my national football team with a passion no other team will ever enjoy. Nothing United achieve will ever top this.

As the referee blew the whistle, every one of us stood up to salute our heroes. Eleven players who etched their name into Malaysian football folklore.

The atmosphere was still electric. I was still on my high.

So was everyone else around me. Malay, Chinese or Indian, it did not matter. Tonight, we were one. We were Malaysia. There is no other time can you high-five a complete stranger or celebrate wildly with the nearest person to you. They say football can unite people. They are not wrong.

The drive home was something I thoroughly enjoyed as well. You would have thought that with the jam, everything would be chaotic. It was, but in the good sense.

I rolled my windows down as my cousin hoisted the Jalur Gemilang. And we proceeded to high-five anyone that walked by as I honked all the way home.

It’s one of those things you see on television all the time, but being part of it is something else. Safe to say, the drive home was something else I will take away from this game.

Motorcycles and cars usually do not get along on the road. Tonight, even the vehicles came together as one as we shared Malaysia’s triumph.

This team have faced severe criticisms. This team were missing 10 key players. This team were given no chance in hell of going this far. This team did not have the support of the Malaysian public.

Until now. It irks me that the casual fans continue to criticise and criticise but on nights like these they magically become proud Malaysians.

Look around Facebook and Twitter and you will touch the tip of this very hypocritical iceberg. Maybe now they will l decide to follow the team a bit more closely and give them the support they need.

K. Rajagopal should be commended greatly for his work with our national squad. He knows where the weaknesses are and works on it. Our national team is now a cohesive unit; one who work for each member of the team.

The team used to be rubbish at marking and defending. Our defenders can now read the game like a book. Our midfield used to tire easily and used to have a poor work rate. The same can’t be said of them now.

And most notably, our strikers used to be selfish. They used to create only for themselves. Tonight, we saw our deadly front two combine with devastating effect.

Tonight, the entire team gave us a five-star performance. No doubt, this is due to years of hard work. And we are finally seeing the benefits of it.

Granted, this is only a regional tournament and we should have bigger fish to fry. But we are taking it slow, one step at a time, which is the right way to go.

We can’t expect to be competing with the best in Asia, let alone the world just yet. But we are heading in the right direction. And most importantly (we haven’t even won the Suzuki Cup yet), we are just celebrating a tremendous result.

My previous notes all lament the state of our football (the China game was just my initial reaction, it actually was all the referee’s fault). So one great tournament will not drastically alter my view but I do feel we are headed in the right direction.

It’s just up to the team to maintain and even improve on their current standard.

There is no doubt that they can, it’s just a matter of whether they want to or not. And when we finally get rid of all the politics and other nonsense in the FAM set-up, there is no telling how far we can go.

Tonight was a defining moment in Malaysian football history. It will be a date that stands out in time.

A date we will remember fondly. Like the time we qualified for the Olympics. Like thetime we won SEA Games gold.

Dec 26, 2010 – the day Malaysia upstaged Indonesia with one of our greatest performances of all time. I will look back at this game for many years to come, along with millions of other Malaysians. I will be proud to say that I was there.

P.S. the song he was referring to is "Inilah Barisan Kita"
"Inilah barisan kita,
yang ikhlas berjuang,
siap sedia berkorban,
untuk ibu pertiwi,
andai kata kita gugur semua,
taburkanlah bunga di atas pusara,
kami mohon doa,
semboyan telah berbunyi,
menuju medan bakti"

P.P.S. support Malaysia in the 2nd leg of the finals!!!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Teach a Noob to Fish..

I never really understood my Kong Kong's (Chinese for grandpa) love for fishing. Of course, the idea of a fisherman is often romanticized; the fisherman sitting beside a placid lake with nothing but his fishing stick, a bucket of bait and his day's catch while the sun sets over the water. But through personal observation of my beloved Kong Kong after a fishing excursion, I've discovered that fishing is more often a smelly, sweaty and bloody business (with pointy hooks involved).

But there I was, a few days ago: a fishing rod in my hand, the line slack as the bait lazily drifted in the water while a light rain pattered on the ground under a moonless night sky. Kong Kong had brought along three fishing rods on the family trip to Sepang beach, and somehow one of those rods ended up in my hands. As I tug on the fishing rod, attempting to make the bait "move through the water like a wounded fish" (like I saw once in a fishing documentary), my mind wandered elsewhere...

And like any red-blooded Malaysian male, my mind wandered towards football. Coincidentally, Malaysia had played Vietnam in the first leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup that very evening - and against all odds, Malaysia had won 2-0. It did surprise me, just like it probably surprised most of the football-watching population of Malaysia (and most probably, Vietnam too). Even the most optimistic of Malaysian fans wouldn't have expected a Malaysian team to defeat the much-fancied Vietnamese, especially since Malaysia had about 10 key players out injured.

What impressed me more, though, was not the win. Instead, it was the Malaysian coach, a certain Mr, Rajagopal, who impressed me with his pre-match interview. He spoke confidently, in perfect English, using phrases like "our team needs the right mentality" and "the boys need to realize that there is nothing to lose". It was refreshing, in a sense. And I was proud that at we had a local coach instead of a foreign one.

My mind was rudely brought back to Earth by the desperate tugging on my line. A bite! And this fish felt stronger than the previous four I had caught. Kong Kong urged me to "main" (play) with the fish, in other words, to let the fish swim around and tire itself out before I reel it in. And this is where the thrill of fishing is. The adrenaline kicks in as you realize another creature (which could be your dinner) was in a direct struggle with you through a fragile-looking fishing line.

This fish was different than the previous ones; it struggled way longer. Eventually, though, I brought it in. It was a catfish! And a good-sized one, too. Kong Kong told me (with a tinge of jealousy in his voice) that I was lucky; he had been fishing the whole day and hadn't had such luck.

That success, though, didn't stop my mind from wandering back to the Malaysian team. Whatever did happen to our team? Many of those from my generation have grown up hearing stories about "how great the Malaysian team once was". Even my mum, whose knowledge of football isn't that deep, told me in awe about how a Malaysian player once scored directly from a corner.

It was my dad, though, who gave me a lengthy talk on Malaysian football. A few excerpts from that talk are listed below:
"we were once at the level of South Korea and Japan. They were scared of us. But where are they now and where are we now?" (this was said after a South Korean match in the recent World Cup)
"we have 27 million people in Malaysia, but can't even put together 11 decent players for a football team"
"whatever happens, I will always put Malaysia above Manchester United in my list of favourite teams"

That last line embarrassed me a bit. Not because that statement was old-fashioned or "uncool", but because it was true. My personal belief is that Malaysians should put the national team above any other. But then that makes me a hypocrite. I wore a Manchester United jersey, after all, when Manchester United came to Malaysia to play against our best 11. And I couldn't name a Malaysian players to save my life.

But the Malaysian semi-final win did restore some hope. For me, at least. I really like this Rajagopal guy. And I now know the names of TWO Malaysian players. The winger, Kuna and the striker Sabri (I don't know their full names, don't push your luck).

By the time I left Sepang, I can proudly say that I've caught six fishes. Incidentally, that is the same number of fishes I've caught in my lifetime. Oh well, all in due time. Regarding the Malaysian team, maybe I don't have to wait until I'm six feet under before I hear "Negaraku" before a World Cup match. All in due time.

If one thing fishing has taught me, though, is that you need patience. And I believe that 11 decent players will emerge from among our millions if we are patient enough.

This Sunday, the Indonesian team will meet us in the finals. I hope my fellow Malaysians will urge our team on as we "main" the Indonesians - just as Kong Kong urged me on as I "main" and eventually caught my catfish.

P.S, The catfish tasted awesome, but a Malaysian victory would be taste way sweeter

Monday, December 13, 2010

Walking Into a Fairytale

My mother lived in Kuala Kubu Baru for nearly a decade, from the age of four to the age of twelve. That was about 30 years ago - which means Kuala Kubu Baru isn't that "baru" at all. But this blog update is not posted to criticise the name of a sleepy town near Rawang. Nor is it a sneaky way to expose my mum's age (she's not THAT old). Nope. This post will tell the story of a mother, her childhood home, and her 6-year-old son.

I guess I had a pretty good childhood. I grew up in places suitable to grow up in, befriended the right people, and had a great sister to share a childhood with. My mum, on the other hand, wasn't as well-to-do as a child. But she made do with what she had, and experienced her fair share of fond childhood memories despite shouldering responsibilities not faced by children nowadays.

Kuala Kubu about 30 years ago was a small town. Or maybe calling Kuala Kubu a "town" is giving it more credit than its due.. No, Kuala Kubu then was more like an overgrown kampung; not quite a village, but not quite a town either. It had a main road, some coffee houses, a school, a church which doubled as a kindergarten for the local children, a small river and a sprinkling of houses. But this overgrown kampung would be the template for many of my mum's childhood stories.

My sister and I grew up listening to my mum's childhood stories. We listened in glee as she told us how she boiled live fishes she caught in the small river behind her house. How she once ran from a bull while taking a short cut back from school. How she tolerated the bites of geese reared in her backyard. How she battled the neighbourhood boys for a durian that had just fallen to the ground.

My mum's childhood stories were our bedtime stories. Stories of a little girl in a little magical town of Kuala Kubu were more significant to us than Hansel and Gretel or Jack's beanstalk. Even now, it startles me that this "fairytale land" is a mere 30 minutes from Rawang. And it never occured to me that we would set foot on the magical soil of Kuala Kubu Baru - until we did just that yesterday.

The first thing my now-grown-up mum saw was that Kuala Kubu had also grown up in the last 30 years. The main road was wider and there were new buildings all around. But Kuala Kubu, like my mum, had not lost her character over the years. The durian tree was still there, and so was the stream. The church still stood, and so did her childhood house. It was great to see my mum's face light up reminiscing memories born long before I was.

We waded in the stream where my mum caught those unfortunate boiled fishes. We visited her primary school, where my mum could still remember the spot where she performed for a talent show (she got 2nd place, by the way). My mum showed the exact spot where she once sold fruits (just outside the town's theatre). But the highlight of the day was when we stepped into her childhood house, and met the very uncle who raised her as a child.

We didn't really expect to be welcomed by anyone when we approached the house. The sign outside said that the house was now a kindergarten. Other than that, though, there were few changes. Then we were pleasantly surprised to find out that my mum's uncle (now aged 82) was alive and fit as a fiddle. He led us into the house, and my family witnessed the touching sight of a niece catching up with her aged uncle. When we left, it was with a promise that we will return.

It was kind of surreal to see the setting of my mum's stories come to life around us. Seeing those places was like seeing an enormous beanstalk sprout from the ground beside a guy named Jack. Soon, though, reality struck. It came with the realization that many things have changed in Kuala Kubu. The short cut my mum once took home from school, for example, now did not lead all the way home. It was blocked by a brand new green fence.

For me, the scene that affected me most was seeing my brother walking hand in hand with my mum while touring my mum's primary school. Here was a mother looking back on her early years, hand in hand with a boy about to begin his own primary education next year. It made me wonder if my brother would have such nice memories to tell his children in 30 years. Right now, he doesn't even know how a goose looks like. He had grown up nearer to monsoon drains than rivers. We playfully referred to him as "the city boy", but it got me thinking: would he have a childhood as nice as my mum's?

We left after a few hours. Kuala Kubu had changed. My mum didn't have to tell us that the place in her stories was not the same place we now saw. But it was still Kuala Kubu Baru, and we were content with that. It was still my mother's home. We will return, if not for anything, to let my brother have a taste of kampung life. It would be to spend some time with my mum's aging uncle - my granduncle.It would be to remind us how important memories are to us. We will return.