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Kim Pan-gon shows deft man-management and motivational skills as he lifts Malaysia national football team

South Korean mixes discipline with ability to inspire as he expertly blends homegrown talents and naturalised players into a cohesive unit

Malaysia head coach Kim Pan-gon during an international friendly match against Thailand.
Malaysia head coach Kim Pan-gon during an international friendly match against Thailand. (PHOTO: Pakawich Damrongkiattisak/Getty Images)

NOT long after descending upon Malaysian shores, Kim Pan-gon was handed his first test in managing the human capital at his disposal.

Two players from the same club were summoned to the national football head coach's office at the second floor of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) headquarters. The duo, among those called up for his maiden centralised training camp in March 2022, were deemed to have broken the disciplinary code at the hotel.

The Korean told the FAM secretariat to purchase a one-way ticket home for the two players. Then he confronted them separately. The duo was issued an ultimatum – their names forever be deleted from future call-ups, or they pledge their full commitment to the cause.

Both chose option two, and one player has since been a permanent fixture, the other remained within Kim's radar and was recently recalled to the team.

Languishing at No.154 in the FIFA world rankings, Malaysia needed a jolt on all fronts. And Kim’s presence raised the game for everyone, including non-technical staff at FAM.

Within two years, Harimau Malaya are 130th in the November 2023 rankings, with the distinction of having defeated higher ranked nations. The team registered 18 victories, four draws and five defeats with a 66.77 winning percentage out of 27 matches.

How did the 54-year-old South Korean do it?

Demanding in work ethics

First to discover his ethos were the non-technical staff. Kim demanded a lot in terms of work ethics, meeting deadlines and new ideas.

He had experience in managing them, as he was vice-president of the Korean Football Association (KFA), as well as head of the national team committee with the licence to hire and fire. By accepting FAM’s offer in January 2022, he relinquished the authority as the KFA national team supremo, a position now occupied by Michael Muller, who hired Jurgen Klinsmann to take charge of the Taeguk Warriors.

With his two assistants Pau Marti and E. Elavarasan, performance analyst Lim Jae-hun, assistant field coach Park Bo-bae, fitness trainer Dr Gokhan Kandemir (later replaced by Park Ji-hyeon) and goalkeeper coach Cho Jun-ho, Kim set about to assemble the national team. They scoured the country to identify up to 80 players in the Super League and the now defunct Premier League who could fit into Kim's philosophy.

Kim, a father of two, also introduced a fresh approach as he began to create a high-performance environment for the national team.

FAM were told to decorate the team hotel with the Harimau Malaya branding and motivational words on marketing collaterals. At every opportunity, the coach - known in the office as KPG - instilled a sense of belonging, belief and a huge dose of patriotism into his players.

“He wanted the team to be treated as representatives of the nation – Malaysia’s best who deserved to be treated with respect,” said an insider.

Malaysia national football head coach Kim Pan-gon (centre) gives instructions to Quentin Cheng (left) and Lee Tuck in their AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup semi-final match against Thailand at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium.
Malaysia national football head coach Kim Pan-gon (centre) gives instructions to Quentin Cheng (left) and Lee Tuck in their AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup semi-final match against Thailand at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium. (PHOTO: Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

Gelling homegrown talent with naturalised players

A virtual unknown in Malaysia on his arrival, Kim has since endeared himself to the public.

The handful who knew him were former national coach Datuk K. Rajagobal, Aminuddin Hussein and the late B. Satiananthan, Kim’s fellow participants at the AFC professional diploma course conducted by Howard Wilkinson in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. They completed the course in Germany and Korea, with Kim, then 34, among the youngest participants.

Media personnel too remember Kim from his sojourns with the Hong Kong team which drew 1-1 in Malacca at the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2017, amid Portuguese coach Eduardo “Nelo” Vingada’s doomed winless stint as the Malaysian supremo.

The South Korean has succeeded in gelling together a team of homegrown talent - such as flankers Akhyar Rashid, Faisal Abdul Halim and Arif Aiman Hanapi, as well as goalkeeper Ahmad Syihan Hazmi - with the naturalised players, those with Malaysian lineage such as Corbin Ong, Matt Davies, Dion Cools, Stuart Wilkin and Darren Lok as they begin to mature as a team.

Two hard earned victories in the 2026 World Cup/2027 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers – a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Kyrgyzstan, a team 40 rungs above Malaysia in the FIFA rankings, and a 1-0 away win again Chinese Taipei – bode well for Kim, who is also fortunate to have the likes of in-form naturalised foreigners Paulo Josue and Endrick dos Santos to call upon, as opposed to the toothless Guilherme de Paula in his predecessor Tan Cheng Hoe’s line-up.

The man who appointed Kim, FAM president Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin, installed businessman Datuk Wira Kamarul Ariffin Mohd Shahar as the team’s minder. A former team manager of the Malaysian Under-19 squad, Kamarul’s task was to deal with the players’ quirks and peculiar eccentricities and maintain team harmony in whatever means he could.

The team dynamics are keeping the Malaysian dream of featuring in the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada alive.

Thus far Kim has shown the will to cope with external factors, including pressure from forces outside FAM which can be seen as interference and the minus points of social media. Thanks to years of dealing with egos in the Hong Kong football industry, he is adept at political pugilism.

Combining Korean discipline, Hong Kong openness, and compromise the Malaysian way, Kim has seen off the challenges as storms in the tea cup. Can it last until and beyond the AFC Asian Cup finals in Doha in January?

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