Kim Pan-gon on shaky ground as Oman defeats expose preparation flaws ahead of crucial FIFA World Cup qualifiers

South Korean head coach under pressure as Harimau Malaya are brought down to earth after opening two qualifying wins

Oman's Abdul Rahman Al Mushaifri (left) and Abdul Aziz Al Shamousi, as well as Malaysia's Akhyar Rashid (yellow jersey) in action during their 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.
Oman's Abdul Rahman Al Mushaifri (left) and Abdul Aziz Al Shamousi, as well as Malaysia's Akhyar Rashid (yellow jersey) in action during their 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier at the Bukit Jalil Stadium. (PHOTO: Wong Fok Loy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

IN FOOTBALL, a span of a week can feel like a year, let alone two months. So soon after the high of holding his fellow South Koreans to a surprise 3-3 draw in the AFC Asian Cup in January, Malaysia national head coach Kim Pan-gon and his men were brought back down to earth with a bump.

Two successive defeats with identical 0-2 scorelines by Oman in a matter of five days last week have raised questions - have Harimau Malaya lost their bite? Or did the players lack the necessary match fitness to take on a nation ranked higher, with the Malaysian league still in pre-season mode?

Ostensibly, Malaysia’s path to the third round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers is in jeopardy. The team’s destiny is no longer in their own hands.

But developments that occurred 48 hours ahead of the Football Association of Malaysia’s (FAM) 60th Congress on Monday (1 April) have further fuelled speculation that something was amiss. And it’s not an April Fools' joke.

The organisation was rocked by a viral email alleging malpractice by the management, a day after media reports surfaced that Kim had tendered his resignation, which was later denied by the national football body on their social media platforms.

No option but to win remaining 2 qualifying games

Allegations aside, Malaysia sit third in Group D of the World Cup/Asian Cup qualifiers, trailing second-placed Oman and group leaders Kyrgyzstan by three points. Kyrgyzstan have the edge over Oman on goal difference after an emphatic 5-1 victory over Chinese Taipei.

Kim needs no reminding that only the top two teams from each group progress to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers. Malaysia has never advanced that far since the nation’s first foray into World Cup qualification in 1973.

Suffice to say, Harimau Malaya have no option but to win their two remaining Group D matches in June. If that happens, then they would be able to progress to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, as well as qualify automatically for the AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia three years from now.

If they can't finish in the top two spots, they may again be forced to participate in the final round of Asian Cup qualifiers, which will run from March 2025 to March 2026. The process – successfully negotiated by Kim upon his arrival in early 2022 – involve the 18 teams eliminated from the World Cup second-round qualifiers and six teams eliminated from the first-round qualifiers. They will be drawn into six groups and play home-and-away matches to determine the last six spots to Saudi Arabia.

Harimau Malaya can avoid the hassle, provided they collect maximum six points from the two remaining matches - against Kyrgyzstan on 6 June and Chinese Taipei five days later. In Bishkek, Kim will be asking his men to seize the initiative and dominate Kyrgyzstan, though it could be akin to climbing the 7,000-metre high Jenish Chokusu, the tallest mountain in the Central Asian republic.

No lead-up games before crucial clashes?

Kim’s body language after witnessing his men succumb to Omar Malki’s penalty and Mohammed Al Ghafri’s injury-time strike as Oman sealed a win at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil last Tuesday was telling. The Korean was quick to apologise yet again, assuming full responsibility for the team’s defeat without wanting to spill the beans.

“I’m in pain,” he said as he pointed to his heart during the post-match press conference. “We forced them into this situation. We created the circumstances for these players. (But) imagine, no games before an important clash.”

Surely he was alluding to league operators MFL’s decision to kick-off the season only in May, thus denying the players the much-needed competitive edge ahead of the Oman clashes. Or was he questioning his employers’ empty promises of a training camp in Dubai ahead of the Oman games?

Malaysia national football head coach Kim Pan-gon during the AFC Asian Cup.
Malaysia national football head coach Kim Pan-gon during the AFC Asian Cup. (PHOTO: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

After the away defeat to Oman two weeks ago, Kim made three changes to the first XI, bringing in Syamer Kutty Abba for Brendan Gan, Azam Azmi Murad for left-footer Daniel Ting at right-back, and fielding second striker Darren Lok to partner Romel Morales. However, despite a bright start when Arif Aiman Hanapi’s effort inside two minutes was thwarted by Oman keeper Ibrahim Al Mukhaini, the team failed to shift into a higher gear.

For all Kim’s pride in sticking to his philosophy, the team’s pattern of play was easily deciphered and neutralised. It is public knowledge that the team’s creative force is channeled through the flanks via Faisal Halim and Arif Aiman, fresh from bagging five awards in the Malaysian Football Awards. They are aided by two hardworking midfielders Stuart Wilkin and either Gan or Kutty, who appeared sluggish from the start.

Perhaps not wanting to upset the balance, Kim introduced Endrick dos Santos only after half-time, The attacking midfielder could have offered penetration in attack, but his penetrative runs into the box came to nothing. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, Malaysia opted for Route One football by resorting to hopeful long balls, all of which were easily intercepted by Al-Mukhaini.

Except for Ahmad Syihan Hazmi Mohamad’s acrobatics, the defence was disjointed, with Dion Cools, Dominic Tan and Corbin Ong vulnerable to Oman’s lightning-fast counter-attacks. Azam, meanwhile, was unlucky to suffer a torn ligament on his ankle after an awkward fall which may take up to two months to recover.

FAM on cost-cutting measure?

Between now and June, Kim is expected to somehow whip the Tigers into shape. But even if the league is in full swing by then, the fans may start lowering their expectations.

While the South Korean may have the enthusiasm to go back to the drawing board, rumours continue to swirl around FAM headquarters that the federation is on a cost-cutting measure.

That perhaps explained why a team kitman and a masseur who formed the backroom staff at the Asian Cup were missing from the Oman games, along with former assistant team manager Datuk Kamarul Ariffin Mohd Shahar. Pau Marti, Kim’s trusted assistant, was also absent due to an illness.

Their absences suggest that team dynamics have changed remarkably since the famous draw against Son Heung-min and Co. With the allegations on FAM expected to escalate into epic proportions within the fraternity, it may have a negative impact on Kim’s preparations.

Surely by now, Kim should have realised that one cannot draw a tiger modelled on a cat.

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