With a squad decimated by injuries, and games against powerhouses China and Japan to come, the Asian Games will be a stern test for our national football team – but it will be an equally big one for us, the supporters.

Right now, support for Malaysian football is about as high as I’ve ever remembered it to be; thanks in no small part, I believe, to the team’s spirited showing in the friendly against Manchester United (where our boys only lost to a late Michael Owen goal), their fairy-tale run to the 2009 SEA Games gold medal, and most recently, a confidence-boosting victory over the South Korean Olympic side.

That support seems to have spilled over to domestic football too. The recent Malaysia Cup didn’t just fill-up the 100,000-seating Bukit Jalil National stadium (as it does pretty much every year), it also got people talking on cyberspace, especially Twitter, where people were declaring their allegiances and willing their teams on.

But it’s easy to support a team during good times. It is, after all, infinitely more fun watching a team that’s doing well and winning games. The test now at the Asian Games, it seems, would be whether the Malaysian fans will still support their team when the going gets tough.

Malaysia bagged another good result in their first match on Monday, beating Kyrgyzstan 2-1; but this evening, they’ll be facing a Japanese side fresh off a 3-0 drubbing of China, who themselves will now have something to prove when they play us on Saturday. It might get ugly.

I remember interviewing the twin terrors in the current national team, Mohd Zaquan Adha Abdul Razak and Mohd Aidil Zafuan Abdul Razak, about two years ago, and they were telling me about the abuse their family had to endure at stadiums sometimes from Malaysian fans.

“We’re professionals, and we’ve learned how to block out all the terrible things they shout at us. It’s our family that we feel sorry for, because they attend most of our games to show support, and they have to hear all these insults hurled at us,” said Aidil, who added that Malaysian fans had often turned on them when results weren’t going their way.

But to be a real fan, a real supporter, you have to stick with your team through the bad times, like say when your manager goes on a spending spree that includes players like Liam Miller and Eric “So-Good-They-Named-Him-Twice” Djemba-Djemba (that’s you, Fergie).

And as optimistic as I’m trying to be about our national team’s chances at the Asian Games, luck has just not been on their side.

Coach K. Rajagobal lost six key players to injury after a long, hard domestic season. The casualty list includes almost all his first choice defenders, and he’s had no choice but to select two rookie goalkeepers for the squad.

Hearing him speak at the launch of the new Nike national team jersey just a day before the squad left for Guangzhou, it felt like the pragmatic coach was already trying to manage expectations.

“We have no targets,” he said, when asked how far he expected his team to go in the competition. “What is important is that the team plays well and gives their best.”

Indeed. But we’ve all been guilty of complaining and whinging whenever the team hasn’t done well in the past, so I guess it’s only fair that we show them even more support now that they seem to be getting better all the time.

One of the things that has impressed me about this team is that street-wise hardiness they have about them when they’re on the pitch, so who knows? They might just pull off another big upset. But even if they don’t, we should still be proud of their efforts.

Tanah Tumpahnya Darahku

I also managed to catch up a little with Selangor FA star Safiq Rahim at the national team jersey launch, the first time I’ve spoken to him since our interview after the SEA Games.

Now Safiq’s a pretty quiet and reserved guy, but he looked totally chuffed with the new jersey.
The Nike kit is made with space-age technology, uses recycled material and all that, but the coolest feature for me, was the simple embroidered words on the inside of the jersey, right behind the Malaysian flag – Tanah Tumpahnya Darahku.

I asked Safiq about it, and he was so enthusiastic that he lifted the jersey he was wearing and showed it to me. A little more than I’d wanted to see, but it was good to see how proud he was of the jersey.

Just as it was during our interview, Safiq didn’t have much to say. He just told me he loved the new kit, and he liked having the words on the inside.

But that’s how our young Tigers are. They’re not superstars, just regular guys who know how lucky they are to be playing for their countries.

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