Malaysia, Indonesia set to renew Southeast Asia's biggest rivalry
Malaysia's football rivalry with Singapore may have grown a little stale in recent years, but Thursday's 2022 World Cup qualifier against Indonesia in front of 80,000 fans in Jakarta promises to be extremely spicy.
The last two meetings between Malaysia and Singapore, in March 2019 in Kuala Lumpur and in October 2016 in the Lion City, were low-key affairs with low attendances.
That could not be in greater contrast to the anticipation ahead of Group G's opening game. At the moment in Southeast Asia, Indonesia vs. Malaysia is the biggest game there is and that includes the other all-ASEAN clash in the group between Thailand and Vietnam that also takes place on Thursday.
Much of the build-up has centered around Malaysia requesting the presence of armored personnel carriers, and the two deaths that occurred at the same Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in a SEA Games meeting between the two nations in 2011.
So tense has the build-up to the Jakarta showdown become that Tan Cheng Hoe, head coach of the Harimau Malaya, has been trying to calm things down a little.
"Much has been said about the atmosphere expected tomorrow, but my players know that they need to perform well regardless, Cheng Hoe said.
"I think the media is focusing too much on the element of rivalry, while we should remember to concentrate on what's going to happen on the pitch.
"We need to understand and respect each other, and remember that we are opponents, not enemies. We're practically the same people after all, aren't we?"
Cheng Hoe, appointed in December 2017, is looking to overcome history. Qualification for the 2018 World Cup was a disaster with Malaysia conceding 29 goals in the group stage, a campaign that included an infamous 10-0 thrashing against the United Arab Emirates and a 6-0 loss at the hands of Palestine.
The recent record against Indonesia is not great either. Malaysia have lost 12 of their 18 meetings at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium and have not won there for 12 years.
"Sure, the record between the two teams at this stadium favours Indonesia," Cheng Hoe said. "However, we need to ignore that for the time being.
"It's a different head coach, different players. My players will give their best and are intent on coming away with a positive result in the campaign opener."
There is encouragement for an improving Malaysia ahead of the game against an unpredictable Indonesia. The visitors reached the final of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia's biennial championships, last December and thrashed Timor Leste in the first round of qualification in June. The Tigers, who have been enjoying a resurgence at youth level, also impressed in a 1-0 loss against Jordan last week.
If Malaysia can keep their head as Southeast Asia's biggest rivalry manifests itself at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium then the coach is confident that the 3000 travelling fans and millions back home can celebrate what would be a famous result.
"It is very important that the players to deal with the pressure at the stadium and stay focused," said the coach.
"They need to keep their emotions in check when playing against Indonesia. It won't be easy but we are looking forward to the challenge."
Malaysia return home on Tuesday to host the U.A.E. in the second round of Group G matches. Only the winners of the eight five-team groups and the four best-runners up progress to the next round.