Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - On a sodden school field in Seremban, about an hour south of Kuala Lumpur, a group of young footballers are going through their paces.
"Let's go, let's go," the coaches yell as, one after the other, the 12-year-olds pass the ball to each other, their boots sending up sprays of water with each kick and leaving muddy trails in the grass. The first boy curls the ball elegantly over the goalkeeper's hands and into the net, before running back to his teammates.
But the youngsters aren't the only ones under observation. The coaches are also being coached. The training session is the core of Malaysia's attempt to improve the performance of a national team that's currently ranked 142nd in the world, squeezed between St Lucia and Belize.
"Don't stop," coach educator Matt Holland tells the five coaches after the boys complete the first round through the goal. "Don't tell them to stop. Let them play."
Since a peak in the early 1990s, Malaysian football has been worn down by a lack of structured training, poor sports facilities and match-fixing: A national scandal in the early 1990s led to 26 players being banned and undermined fans' faith in the sport. Launched with great fanfare earlier this month, the National Football Development Plan is supposed to help Malaysia regain its position and become a serious contender both in the region and globally.
Football is the number one sport in this country in terms of interest and participation, and we have underperformed for many, many years.
"Football is the number one sport in this country in terms of interest and participation, and we have underperformed for many, many years," said Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, a Manchester United fan like many of his fellow Malaysians.
"If we get this right, the style of play will be completely different. It'll be at a much greater intensity, leveraging the natural speed that Malaysian players have: very fast in the transition from attack to defence, defence to attack, and more possession of the ball," he told Al Jazeera in an interview at his office in Putrajaya, the administrative capital.
Under the National Football Development Plan, the government - led by the Ministry of Youth and Sports with the support of the Ministry of Education - will be responsible for the young players progressing through the ranks, with the Football Association of Malaysia, the sport's governing body, accountable for professional development at the senior level. Initial targets are for 2020, but Khairy stresses that results will take much longer to achieve. "Development takes time," he said.
The new development plan aims to increase the number of coaches to 2,472 in 2020, from just 387 now, and triple the number of training centres. By 2020, more than 50,000 players are expected to be in training, increasing the pool of talent available for both the top club teams and the national squad. At the moment, there are just 5,000 players.
For supporters such as Ben Ibrahim, a Malaysian sports journalist, the focus on developing the younger players is welcome. Like many Malaysians, he's disappointed at the precipitous decline of the national team, now left in the shadows by countries such as Korea and Japan - despite recent successes in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Suzuki Cup and Southeast Asian Games.
|By 2020, more than 50,000 Malaysian football players are expected to be in training [EPA]
"When I was 12, it seemed we were almost there," he said. Malaysia achieved its highest global ranking - 75th - in 1993. But boosting national performance will also require close collaboration between government and the game's administrators.
Khairy is "a doer and a results man", Ibrahim said. "I hope he can change the system, but it's going to be tough."
Malaysia's football association, which was set up during colonial times, has been criticised by fans over the national team's recent performance and its reluctance to accept criticism. The association declined Al Jazeera's request for an interview.
Kicking it up
The 38-year-old sports minister, who is regularly spotted both playing and watching sports, has signed up former Bayern Munich junior coach Lim Teong Kim to lead the new initiative. Lim, a former professional player who made 76 appearances on Malaysia's national team, spent more than a decade in Germany and is eager to see his homeland adopt similar training techniques.
The new ways are very different. It's the way football should be. We try to promote creativity and self-confidence. Before it was like they were remote-controlled players.
"It's not just about football," Lim explained during a break from Malaysia's first-ever coaching seminar, headlined "Changing the Way We Think". Speakers included the German league's coach instructor, Bernd Stober, and the head of the academy run by Britain's Queens Park Rangers - now owned by Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes.
"We must instill values in the kids. The people who carry out this responsibility are the coaches. They are the most important people for me, right now."
It all starts at district level with Akademi Tunas, where, in conjunction with local schools, children between the ages of six and 12 will receive specialised training at least twice a week. Malaysia expects to have 150 academies by 2020 with 25,500 children in training.
Boys - and a smaller number of girls - will develop tactical skills, learn about nutrition, teamwork and the importance of commitment. Coaches will keep a computerised record of each child's development, with the best given the chance to apply for a place at the elite National Football Academy.
Back in Seremban, the centre's head coach, Fadzlyn Mohd Hanafi, is already adopting the new coaching techniques - encouraging boys to keep moving, showing them how to pass the ball and praising their successes. Coach educator Holland, who has worked in his native Wales as well as in Australia, Thailand and the US, keeps a watchful eye.
"The new ways are very different," said Hanafi. "It's the way football should be. We try to promote creativity and self-confidence. Before, it was like they were remote-controlled players."
A young player on the pitch named Azwan, the first to score, is already part of the national under-12 squad. He is determined to make the professional ranks and emulate the achievements of his hero, Chelsea's Frank Lampard.
Lasting change to Malaysia's performance on the pitch may take time, but the next generation is already thinking big.
"I'd be so proud to play for my country," Azwan said.
Source: Al Jazeera