BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Malaysia have qualified to the 2018 AFF Championship semi-finals in style, after defeating Myanmar 3-0 at home, in their last Group A match last Saturday.
As group runners-up they will face defending champions Thailand in the final four, while the other encounter will pit Vietnam against the Philippines.
All of the four nations have also qualified for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup which will kick off in January, except for Malaysia of course, who only got as far as the third qualification round, finishing bottom of Group B.
The three Southeast Asian representatives took advantage of the expansion of the competition, which will see an increase in the number of participants from 16 between 2004 and 2015, to 24 beginning in the 2019 edition.
In comparison, the 2015 edition only had the participation of Australia, who are affiliated with AFF (ASEAN Football Federation).
For the sake of Malaysian football's improvement, the Malaysian FA (FAM) must make qualifying on merit for the next edition of the Asian Cup, in 2023, one of its most important aims.
The timing is right. Malaysia's U-23 side have been producing some great results this year to reach the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship quarter-finals and the round of 16 in the Asian Games, while the Malaysia senior team head coach Tan Cheng Hoe is steadily growing into the role he was appointed to last December.
Syazwan Andik Ishak (right) helping Malaysia U-23 defeat Korea Republic U-23 2-1 in the Asian Games. He has played in all Malaysia's matches in the current AFF Championship.
Photo from Getty
It was admittedly a little disappointing that he did not include more U-23 squad members in his AFF Championship squad to provide them with more competitive experience at the senior international level, but it is understandable that he would not want to take the risk, as anything lower than a semi-final finish at least would leave the fans calling for his head.
Now that he's taken his charges to the semis of the biennial regional tournament, Tan needs to ensure they stay competitive in the knockout stage. End the tournament as champions, and FAM will bend over backward to meet his future technical demands.
But without getting too far ahead in regard to the AFF Championship, the team's plans for the next cycle of continental and World Cup qualifiers need to be charted from now, as they are very likely to begin in 2019.
FAM has done a commendable job of arranging eight friendly matches this year, including two against recent SAFF Championship winners Maldives and another Asian Cup participants Kyrgyz Republic, and in the coming year they need to set more friendly dates against formidable opponents, which is something that is more likely to happen if the Harimau Malaya won the regional title by defeating the favourites.
Tan should also look into giving more younger players the chance, as it is unlikely that the likes of Zaquan Adha and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha will be able to maintain their current level of performances, in 2023.
Tan Cheng Hoe. Photo from AFF
And if FAM wants to be even bolder, the association should stop making the AFF Championship its benchmark. The bar should be raised to the continental level, with the regional tournament used as a platform to blood young and fringe squad members. Malaysia have won it once back in 2010 (when Tan was Datuk' Rajagobal Krishnasamy's assistant), and that should be enough for a Southeast Asian-level competition.
Let Indonesia or Myanmar have a crack at the title, or even the Philippines, who have not even played in an AFF Championship final.
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