Model citizen: Zainal Abidin Hassan
We speak to former national footballer Zainal Abidin Hassan about the current state of Malaysian football and what can be done to up its standards. By Wong Boon Ken.
What do you think about the state of our national football team?
The team needs time. From what I’ve seen, I have confidence in the team succeeding in Southeast Asia, but now we have to look forward. They need more exposure with better international matches, like a match against Japan or Korea. That’s much more invaluable than winning a small trophy in the region. Our standard is not in Southeast Asia, we are better than that.
So we’re not terrible?
I don’t think we are that bad, you know. It’s only a matter of time, and also because we don’t have good international matches. We are behind right now in the world rankings, so we don’t have matches against the likes of England or Holland, but we need them to progress.
So the future looks bright for Malaysia?
It looks good. We have good youth development and good government support with a youth academy coming up in Gambang this year.
If that’s the case, will we ever qualify for the World Cup?
Yes, yes. That is one of my dreams, to see Malaysia in the World Cup. However, we need to do a lot of homework. First, we have to improve our world ranking, and we need to be on par with other Asian giants like Japan, Korea and Saudi Arabia. We need to be on that level in order to qualify for the World Cup.
When will that happen?
With this team around and an increasing number of young players coming through as well as good development and support from the government, I think we’ll have a good chance to qualify for the World Cup in 15 years if we start doing our homework from now on.
What kind of homework?
First, upgrade our league, that’s the most important. Now we’re doing that, which is something I’m proud of because we have managed to produce a lot of promising young players who can contribute to our national team. Secondly, the players need to have good exposure, high level exposure.
By playing in foreign leagues?
Yes, in order to compete with the continent’s best nations.
How about the reintroduction of foreign players in the Super League in regards to the development of our local players?
We tried to not have foreign players in our league, but there wasn’t much improvement in the standard of playing. With foreign players coming in again, it will be an upgrade for the league. When the league is tough, the national team will be tough. Local players must learn from them, but most importantly, we must have very good foreign players to boost the league and improve our football.
Have Tan Sri Tony Fernandes’ and Tan Sri Vincent Tan’s ownership of QPR and Cardiff improved Malaysian football in any way?
Of course, I mean, we need this very badly because our footballers will look forward to be there. I think, one day, they (Fernandes and Tan) will help the national team gain exposure by training and having games there, which would be a wonderful experience for the players.
You think foreign ownership in England is better than channelling money into our local league?
For me, they did something great for Malaysia. Of course, they can improve [pauses]. Tak mau lah, tak mau cakap pasal tu lah.
Okay. What are you up to these days?
I’m looking forward to the improvement of the Malaysian team. Now, I’m still with the Pahang team with Dollah (Salleh, former national teammate) as the assistant manager. It looks like football here is improving, much better than previous years.
And how’s your restaurant Lagenda 17 coming along?
Good. Please drop by!
We will. So, if you weren’t a footballer, what would you have done career-wise?
I would have been a teacher [laughs]. Jokes aside, I knew since I was nine years old that I would be a footballer and nothing else.
What is your take on footballers and Twitter?
First of all, the players need to be close to the fans. I consider them as public figures. Fans will always offer support and fill the stadium, so I think it’s good for players to use Twitter and Facebook to build rapport with them.
Messi or Ronaldo?
Messi. Without a doubt.
Zainal Abidin Hassan was the captain of the Malaysian Masters team at the EPL Masters Football Malaysian Cup in April.