As Louis van Gaal masterminded Manchester United’s emphatic victory against Liverpool over the weekend, the former Premier League midfielder to whom he gave his full Netherlands debut a decade and a half ago declared his interest in the Malaysia national coaching job.
Ex-Kelantan head coach George Boateng was back in Kuala Lumpur on a personal trip and eyeing what some might consider to have become the toughest gig in Southeast Asian football.
On Sep. 5, under-23 coach Ong Kim Swee took over on an interim basis after Malaysia suffered a record 10-0 defeat against United Arab Emirates in a World Cup qualifier. A much-improved performance against Saudi Arabia four days later was ruined when Malaysian fans fired flares onto the Shah Alam Stadium pitch to force the match’s abandonment in the 87th minute.
This week, it was announced that Malaysia would advertise the head coach and U23 positions, with a decision made by December.
“The national team is at the lowest with the past few results and it’s time to make a change and bring in a foreign coach with fresh ideas,” Boateng told ESPN FC in Kuala Lumpur. “The team needs rebuilding with new players for the next three to four years. It’s also all about creating the right atmosphere.”
His critics would point out that Boateng hardly set the world on fire during his stint across two seasons in Kota Bharu.
After a sixth place finish in the 2014 Malaysia Super League, the 40-year-old was “rested” only five games into the 2015 season with Kelantan sitting in seventh spot on seven points.
Their FA Cup campaign had gone better — the Red Warriors were through to the quarterfinals and would progress to the final under new boss Azraai Khor. But Azraai would leave the club soon after the 3-1 defeat to LionsXII at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium along with a disastrous MSL run.
“Some people will say that we didn’t win anything when I was in charge but if only the management were more patient we would have lifted the FA Cup and finished in the top four,” Boateng said.
“At Kelantan, I tried teaching the players several systems so that when the opposition changed we could also adapt, but that sometimes meant a negative result as the players got used to it.
“However, they were making huge progress with their football education.
“I would bring the same approach to the national team instead of always going with 4-4-2 which is so easy for opponents to dismantle.”
As a player, Boateng spent 14 seasons in the English Premier League with Coventry City, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Hull City.
A Feyenoord youth product who rubbed shoulders with the best of Holland’s golden generation, he was given his first cap by Van Gaal at the age of 26 in 2001, away to Denmark. As Oranje drew 1-1 in Copenhagen, his teammates on that day included Clarence Seedorf, Ronald and Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids and Jaap Stam.
“When he called me up, he told me that I would not start the game but after three days of training he was so convinced that he put me in the starting XI without telling me beforehand,” Boateng said.
“I liked it so much because his trust gave me the confidence that I was ready.
“Van Gaal’s style is different to mine because while I am like a teacher with authority, he is more of headmaster who puts a lot of pressure on his players and only the best of them can cope with that.
“But what we have in common is that we both like to develop players and bring out the best in them. We both agree that Memphis Depay could turn out to provide the X-factor that Manchester United have been missing.”
Unlike Van Gaal who was born and raised in Amsterdam, Boateng moved from his native Ghana to the Netherlands when he was nine years old. Contrary to popular belief, he is no relation to the German-born Boateng brothers of Ghanaian extraction, Kevin-Prince and Jerome.
He ended up in Malaysia in unlikely circumstances in 2012, several months after finishing a one-year contract with Nottingham Forest when ex-West Ham midfielder-turned-coach Peter Butler talked him out of retirement to join him at MSL side T-Team.
As a 37-year-old in his final season of professional football, Boateng played 20 games and scored four goals.
But as he turned to TV punditry with Astro SuperSport and BeIN Sports, the coaching bug bit him. He has his A and B licences and will complete his UEFA Pro licence next May.
“Having played for the Dutch U21’s and the full squad I know what needs to be done to win games at international level in a different kind of football where possession is key,” he said.
Bringing in Boateng from his base near London would provide a big-match European perspective — he appeared in the 2006 UEFA Cup final for Middlesbrough against Sevilla — with the bonus of knowing most of the current national squad, even having faced some of them on the pitch.
The danger is that he is still largely an unproven quantity, despite his impressive pedigree.
But Boateng believes that a mixture of younger players, more flexible tactics and a fighting spirit — synonymous with teams of his former boss Van Gaal — could help lift Malaysia from their current FIFA ranking of 169, the second worst in their history.
“You have to make sure that players take to the field with a passion for their country,” he said. “The national team job is an interesting one because there is so much potential here, despite all the problems.”