BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
One day before the Group A 2018 AFF Championship match against Vietnam, I ran into a couple of the Ultras Malaya boys in Hanoi's tourist district. We chatted for a bit, and over drinks one of them related a conversation he had with a home fan from earlier that day at the My Dinh National Stadium, when he went to pick up the tickets they had booked.
"The Vietnamese dude asked me: 'Are you Malaysian fan? How many of you guys are here?' So I answered, around 200. You know what he said back, bro? 'Why so few?'
"I felt like showing him the back of my hand right then and there, but I didn't want to come home in body bag, so I simply went on with the rest of my day," he related to me.
Strangely enough, the same remark regarding the away Malaysian fans' turnout would be repeated to me, just hours before the match.
The chief editor of the Indonesian edition of Goal, Agung Harsya texted me, asking about the numbers of Harimau Malaya fans who would be turning up to the Vietnam clash, and those who turned up to the previous away match; the November 8 1-0 win against Cambodia. He was trying to find out the number of tickets allocated for the away fans by the home teams in this year's competition.
I told him the estimate; around 200 for both matches.
"Only 200? Wow, it's too little," he replied back, matter-of-factly.
I texted back, clarifying that the 200 figure was not the number of tickets allocated by Cambodia and Vietnam to Malaysia fans, but it was what was asked by the fans, and then I realised that I had just made it sound worse.
As much as these almost-similar remarks are infuriating, Malaysia fans must concede that there is truth behind it.
The situation on the home front is not that much better. Against Laos at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium last Monday, only 12,127 turned up to the match that was won by the hosts 3-1, the biggest crowd turnout to a Malaysia home game this year.
In comparison, the Group B Indonesia vs Timor-Leste clash last Tuesday saw one of the lowest crowd turnout to an Indonesia game in recent years, but there were still over 18,000 fans in the Gelora Bung Karno stands. In their away match to Singapore, half of the 15,000 in attendance were the away fans.
During the Laos vs Vietnam Group A clash, almost 70 per cent of the 15,000 crowd at the New Laos National Stadium, Vientiane, was composed of the away fans.
Even the Malaysian ultras, who have done a relatively good job of making their presence felt at the match venues and in the streets of Phnom Penh and Hanoi, had troubles convincing more of their members to follow the Harimau Malaya.
"It's always easier to find excuses than ways, bro. There were some of us who took offence when we pointed out that they have a duty to take the time to come support the team with us," explained an ultras member to me.
"They responded: 'that's what you're capable of, something that we're not, so why compare?' It's infuriating. It's not like we have more lenient employers or more money, we just plan things better and book our trips earlier, when the rates are cheaper."
I recall a conversation with another Ultras Malaya member in mid-October, in which he said that by that point, they have already booked their trips for the AFF Championship matches.
For this AFF Championship edition, even the Malaysian FA (FAM) has done more to meet the fans halfway. Away match tickets can be booked through them, while tickets for the home encounters have been sold well in advance online and at sporting goods retail chain Al-Ikhsan.
As I was writing this article, FAM announced that it is making it even easier for the fans to buy tickets to their final group match; the must-win November 24 home encounter against Myanmar. The number of online and Al-Ikhsan tickets have been increased, while fans can also purchase them at the Bukit Jalil and at the association headquarters beginning Tuesday, November 20.
Just before this article was published, the FAM media officer revealed that around 12,000 tickets have been sold for the encounter.
Hopefully, the fans can do their part to pack the stadium on Saturday to motivate their team into winning their third group match, in order to reach the semis. And more importantly later, Malaysia fans must find ways to follow the team in the knockout stage, not excuses.
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