Stay calm and focused, coach Ong tells Malaysian players
Malaysia v Timor Leste
(Tonight, 8.30pm, Singtel TV Ch 134)
For a while yesterday, every single player in Ong Kim Swee's Malaysian Under-23 squad was lying flat on his back on the pitch at ITE College East, arms spread out, eyes closed.
The Malaysian youngsters took very well to the relaxation exercise, none of them flinched even when a member of the coaching staff waved his hands mere inches from their faces.
They will be looking for a similar cool approach tonight when they open their Group B South-east Asia (SEA) Games football campaign, against Timor Leste at the Bishan Stadium - even as the spectre of match-fixing looms over the fixture.
Yesterday, three Timor Leste players were called up to assist the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB), after an operation resulted in the arrest of one alleged match-fixer from Singapore and several co-conspirators of different nationalities.
"This (match-fixing) thing has been going on for a long time, in every SEA Games, and every tournament in the region," said a livid Ong.
"This is the first I'm hearing of this particular incident, but we keep talking about this for a long time and it keeps happening - it's terrible, it needs to stop.
"Right now the (Malaysian) players don't know. The players must keep their focus. We know what we have to do, and we'll leave the rest to the authorities - let's focus on the game," he said.
Malaysia have to keep their head in the game, especially after both Thailand (against Laos) and Vietnam (against Brunei) registered 6-0 victories in the respective opening fixtures last night.
Their target of a gold medal would require them to follow the group's other contenders, and fly off the starting blocks.
"The target is the same as it was in the past two editions of the SEA Games, expectations are always high, and the target is always gold," coach Ong told The New Paper.
Malaysia won back to back SEA Games titles in 2009 and 2011, but finished fourth in the last edition in Myanmar, falling to Singapore in the bronze medal play-off.
"At the last Games, we were the two-time defending champions, and there was more pressure. This time, we're more relaxed, simply because we're not favourites.
"And being relaxed is important. Look at Vietnam, they only managed one goal against Brunei in the first half, and got more goals once they got the momentum."
Ong picked out defending champions Thailand and Vietnam as the favourites.
"If they commit to wanting to be champions, it will be an easy task for Thailand. They are easily the best team in the region, at both the senior level and U-23," he said.
Thailand won last year's AFF Suzuki Cup with a young squad helmed by Kiatisuk Senamuang, beating Malaysia in the final.
"If we want to win the gold, sooner or later we will have to meet Thailand, and we will respect them as defending champions, but not too much," he said.
Ong is first focused on surviving the group.
"If we don't get three points, we'll put ourselves in a very difficult situation and we cannot take things lightly," he said.
"As long as the players don't panic, we'll be fine."