Singapore was the venue of the inaugural AFF Championship, way back in 1996. It was one of three editions in which Malaysia managed to reach the final of the competition.
The 1996 edition came just 2 years after the massive anti-bribery crackdown in Malaysian football where a large number of players and officials were largely sent packing away from the game. In addition to that, the national team suffered the embarrassment of finishing 4th in the 1995 SEA Games in Chiang Mai.
Wan Jamak Wan Hassan was appointed the national team coach after the failures of both established names in Claude Le Roy and Hatem Souisi in trying lift the performance of their respective squads. Wan Jamak put his faith on the players that excelled in the league season and it saw the squad comprising mainly of players from Selangor, Pahang, Johor and Negeri Sembilan.
Confidence weren’t high going into the tournament but with the evergreen Zainal Abidin Hassan captaining the side from the centre back position instead of his usual striking role, the team quietly went on with their job. It was a tough job considering that Malaysia was put in Group B together with host Singapore and Thailand, with Brunei and Philippines completing the group.
So, the first ever match in the AFF Championships pitted Malaysia against Singapore, who had the ferocious backing of the Kallang roar behind them. However, it was the away side who sprang the first surprise when energetic wide midfielder, K. Sanbagamaran put Malaysia ahead with a well drilled shot in the 76th minute. Only a late indecisive defending, allowed Fandi Ahmad to steal in at the far post to snatch an 89th minute equaliser for the Lions.
In the second group match, Malaysia handed Philippines a comprehensive 7-0 drubbing with Sanbagamaran continuing his fine goal-scoring form with a hattrick. Azman Adnan, Shamsurin Abdul Rahman and M. Chandran also got their names on the goal sheet. A similar beating was also handed down to Brunei in the fourth group match. This time, Annuar Abu Bakar replaced Adnan as the only different goalscorer as Malaysia ran away with a comfortable 6-0 win.
The tougher fixture was actually the match in between where Thailand was the opponent. In what will turn out to be a pre-cursor to the final, both teams were evenly matched tactically as both teams went into the game more worried about losing a point than gaining all 3 points. The “Thai Zico” Kiatisuk Senamuang struck in the 28th minute to put his team ahead but Malaysia’s very own talisman in Zainal fire home a well-deserved leveller in the 59th minute.
Finishing second in the group behind Thailand, Malaysia lost out by two points to the reigning SEA Games champions but still qualified to the semi-final where Indonesia was waiting. The Indonesian side had an almost perfect win record in Group A bar that 1-1 draw with Vietnam. They also had the irrepressible striking duo of Kurniawan Dwi Yulianto and Peri Sandria firing on all cylinders, having plundered in 7 goals between them in the group stage.
However, the expected tough encounter turned out a little different as early goals from Sanbagamaran and Rusde Sulong put Malaysia up by 2 goals after only 16 minutes of game time. Coasting through the rest of the half, the Harimau Malaya boys were given a rude shock as Azmil Azali’s own goal in the 44th minute, provided Indonesia the lifeline they needed going into half time. The concession of the soft goal woke Wan Jamak’s boys from their slumber as the team came out in the second half with a much better game attitude. Shamsurin added the third in the 76th minute to seal Malaysia’s path into the gold medal final match.
Wan Jamak faced a selection issue heading into the final because of the injury picked up by the instrumental creative midfielder in Dollah Salleh, which meant that the team had to approach the final against Thailand more pragmatically. In what was to be a closely fought end to the tournament, it was the magic of one Senamuang whose fierce drive from the edge of the box beyond the despairing dive of Khairul Azman, which meant that Malaysia had to settle for the silver.
In the end, despite not being able to lift the Tiger Cup, it was a fruitful tournament for Malaysia. Zainal more than proved that he was still one of the best players in the region at the tender age of 33, by being named the Most Valuable Player of the 1996 tournament. But the most satisfying aspect of the fantastic run was the fact that it gave many Malaysian supporters the reason to root for the team after all that has happened in the 2 years preceding this tournament.
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