A handful for Raja

PETALING JAYA: Only 10 days ago Under-19 Harimau Muda squad coach K. Rajagopal was promoted to take over as the national Under-23 team coach for the Laos SEA Games.

And it was also decided that the Under-23 team will play in the Merdeka Tournament in August.

Yesterday, the FA of Malaysia (FAM) sprang a surprise by making Rajagopal coach of the senior national team as well. And the senior team will be taking part in the Merdeka Tournament.

FAM deputy president Datuk Redzuan Sheikh Ahmad said after much deliberation with the management of the national team committee headed by FAM president Sultan Ahmad Shah, they have come to a conclusion that Rajagopal was the best candidate for the national team job.

“Looking at his background and having worked with the various age-group teams in FAM, we find him the most suitable choice to handle the national team,” said Redzuan at a press conference at the Wisma FAM in Kelana Jaya yesterday.

Rajagopal has been in charge of the Harimau Muda squad for the last 16 months and the boys are going great guns in the Premier League this season. Former international Ong Kim Swee will take over the Harimau Muda squad.

At the FAM council meeting on April 11, Rajagopal was told to take charge of the National Under-23 squad for the SEA Games while the appointment of the national coach was still under negotiation.

The national coach job was left vacant since the FAM decided to terminate B. Sathianathan’s services on Feb 1.

After more than two months, the FAM have been struggling to find a replacement.

Redzuan said they had 12 names for the national coach’s job and they shortlisted three candidates – Dollah Salleh of Kuantan Port-Shahzan Muda, K. Devan of Selangor and Mohd Azraai Khor Abdullah of Kedah.

However, the negotiations with the trio failed to go through for obvious reasons – it is a risky job.

“As the parent body we can over-rule and ask these candidates to take up the national coach offer but we don’t want to do that … we need a happy medium and want someone who can work with us,” said Redzuan.

Rajagopal, who is an employee of the FAM, said it was a great honour to be picked for the job.

“I thank the FAM for having faith in me to handle these positions. It is a challenge and I will do my best for the country,” said Rajagopal, who will be assisted by Tan Cheng Hoe and goalkeeper trainer Mohd Fauzi Mukhlas.

The 53-year-old Rajagopal, holder of an UEFA pro-licence and a former PKNS and Selangor striker, said he would work hand-in-hand with all quarters for the betterment of the national team.

Rajagopal’s immediate task with the national team is the friendly against English Premier League champions Manchester United at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil on July 18.

Then, they prepare for the Merdeka Tournament in August before taking on Uzbekistan in the qualifying rounds of the Asian Cup in Tashkent in November.

The Under-23 squad would take part in the Inter-continental Cup tournament in Kuala Lumpur from June 1-14 and also the Laos SEA Games in December.

The target for the national team is to win the Suzuki Cup next year and for the Harimau Muda squad is to win the 2013 SEA Games.

National team manager Datuk Gulzar Mohammed said they have invited Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and a team from the Middle East for the Merdeka Tournament.

“We have decided to let the senior team play in the Merdeka Tournament to enable them to improve their ranking,” said Gulzar.

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