KUALA LUMPUR — After ending a more than four-decade wait to qualify on merit for the Asian Cup, the national football team will now shift their attention to trying to seal one of the 18 spots available in the third round of the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers.
Based on the progress shown under the guidance of head coach Kim Pan Gon, which has seen Malaysia now ranked among the top 24 teams in Asia, there is no doubt that this Harimau Malaya squad can create history by going beyond the second round of the World Cup Qualifiers this time.
That is the mission that awaits Harimau Malaya when the second round of the 2026 World Cup Qualifiers begins on Thursday (16 Nov).
Drawn in Group D for the second round of the 2026 World Cup/2027 Asian Cup Qualifiers, world number 137 Malaysia face a daunting task and even the slightest mistake could prove costly.
This is because Pan Gon’s men will be up against two higher-ranked teams in the Qualifiers, namely world number 72 Oman and world number 97 Kyrgyzstan, as well as world number 152 Taiwan in their bid to finish in the top two in the group to confirm their spot in the third qualifying round.
Malaysia, though, look to be on the right track to do just that this time, having racked up seven wins, including over three higher-ranked teams, so far, this year.
One of the victories was over India (world number 102) while they also had two draws – against Syria (world number 94) and China (world number 80) – besides suffering just two defeats.
The Harimau Malaya will begin the second round of the Qualifiers by entertaining Kyrgyzstan at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil on Thursday (16 Nov) before travelling to Taipei to face Taiwan on 21 November.
On paper, Malaysia can expect a tough time against Kyrgyzstan as the White Falcons edged Harimau Malaya 1-0 in their sole friendly match in Melaka in 2018.
However, the national team should head into the match brimming with confidence as they have a 72.73 win percentage this year, compared to Kyrgyzstan’s 31.25 per cent.
Pan Gon looks likely to continue with the same game plan after retaining 20 players who featured in the 2023 Merdeka Tournament last month, which saw Malaysia emerge as runners-up after losing 2-0 to Tajikistan.
2026 World Cup Qualifiers
Among the players retained are skipper Dion Cools, Arif Aiman Mohd Hanapi, Muhammad Safawi Rasid, Muhammad Akhyar Abdul Rashid, Mohamad Faisal Abdul Halim, Brendan Gan, Dominic Tan, Darren Lok, Paulo Josue and Junior Eldstal.
It must also be noted that coach Stefan Tarkovic’s Kyrgyzstan, who clearly have the advantage physically, may not be at their best mentally after suffering two straight defeats – losing 2-0 to Bahrain and 1-0 to the Philippines – in international friendlies last month.
But they have stepped up their preparation ahead of the Qualifiers, with part of the team having “camped” here since last Thursday (9 Nov) and began full training two days later after the rest of the players from Abdish-Ata Kant, the club at the top of the Kyrgyzstan league, checked in.
Based on the list of players called up for Kyrgyzstan’s training camp, Tarkovic has named 11 players from Abdish-Ata Kant as well as players based overseas like in Germany, Russia and Turkiye.
Some of his key players are experienced hitman Mirlan Murzayev, who plies his trade with Hanoi FC in Vietnam and has amassed 16 goals on the international stage, Ghana-born striker Joel Kojo and young midfielder Gulzhigit Alykulov.
After these two matches this month, Malaysia is scheduled to meet Oman away and at home on 21 and 26 March before taking on Kyrgyzstan away on 6 June and Taiwan in Bukit Jalil on 11 June. — Bernama