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Football: Iceland shows Malaysia size doesn’t matter

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If a small country like Iceland, with a population of only one per cent of Malaysia’s, can excel in football, Benedict Lopez doesn’t see why Malaysia can’t.

From minnows to diminutive titans in football – this best describes Iceland’s performance at the recently concluded Euro 2016 football tournament.

Iceland’s sterling display epitomised true grit and signalled the country’s entry into the upper echelons of world football.

Icelanders have every reason to feel proud of their team’s performance considering their country has a population of only 330,000.

Drawing 1-1 with eventual champions Portugal and then Hungary before brushing aside Austria 2-1 in the group stage, Iceland unexpectedly squeezed into the last 16. The Nordic nation then sensationally dumped England out the tournament with a 2-1 win before bowing out of the tournament with dignity, losing 2-5 to former champions France in the quarter-finals.

It was an outstanding achievement by any standards by the men from the Land of the Vikings. With its noteworthy performance, Iceland won the respect and admiration of football fans around the world.

For a country with only 21,508 registered football players and a national stadium with a seating capacity of only 9,800 (total capacity 15,000), this Nordic country has definitely started to make waves in world football. Its remarkable performance in Euro 2016 has catapulted Iceland from 112th in 2010 to 22nd spot in the latest Fifa rankings.

Sports infrastructure assumes a pivotal role in the sporting success of any country. Iceland has 11 indoor ‘football houses’ – full-size soccer fields built with a dome. Because of its inclement weather, it also has 22 full-size undersoil-heated artificial pitches across the country.

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Malaysia was a football powerhouse in the 1960s and 70s, when our peers then were countries like Japan and South Korea. Today, while these countries qualify for the World Cup, we struggle to beat the unknowns in Asian football. Our Fifa ranking has plunged to a dismal 167th now from a high of 79th in 1993.

I vividly remember watching the Malaysian football teams in the 1960s and 70s displaying their admirable skills during the annual Merdeka Cup football tournament. We had household names like Abdul Ghani Minhat, Arthur Koh, Edwin Dutton, Shahruddin Abdullah, N Thanabalan, M Chandran, Soh Chin Aun and Mokhtar Dahari. Our goalkeepers like Chow Chee Keong were among the best in Asia.

Good football players in the past were spotted in schools, and football clubs were the nurturing grounds for promising national footballers. Today, sadly, some of these clubs only remain as a part of our glorious past in our football annals. Many of our football fields have been sacrificed in the name of development.

Watching the film Ola Bola recently made me feel nostalgic. It brought back fond memories of our heyday in football, when we came up with teams who were feared by Asian peers. Back then, we had accomplished and talented players who enabled us to qualify for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

We can regain our 1960s and 70s glory days in football if tangible measures are adopted and if there is a concerted will by all the stakeholders in the game. If a small country like Iceland, with a population of only one per cent of Malaysia’s, can excel in football, I don’t see any reason why we can’t.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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