62 and still going strong: Why wily old Sathia is not about to call it quits
Junpiter Futbol (JPF) sat down with one of the household names in Malaysia football as B. Sathianathan looks back on an illustrious coaching career which has spanned nearly 30 years… By his own admission, he is
Junpiter Futbol (JPF) sat down with one of the household names in Malaysia football as B. Sathianathan looks back on an illustrious coaching career which has spanned nearly 30 years…
By his own admission, he is the luckiest man around.
Regarded as one of the top tacticians in Malaysia football, B. Sathianathan has seen it all – from taking charge of the national team to guiding ATM FA into the Malaysia Super League (MSL).
“I’d like to thank God for he has been smiling on me all this while,” he told JPF when we caught up with him at the Acappella Suite Hotel in Shah Alam.
“He has blessed me with something that many would like to be, and that is to become a coach. I tried going six months without work as a coach and that was the most terrible part of my life.
“The most difficult part about being a footballer is when he or she retires. I’ve seen many of my peers being unable to get away from the fame of being a player and it’s psychologically and physically challenging when that happens.
“When you are still in football and just because you’re still a coach, you must be lucky.”
Currently the head coach at MSL side Selangor FA, Sathianathan had spells with the Negeri Sembilan FA Gold Cup Team and MBBJ FC before his first real break came in 2006.
Appointed the head coach of the Malaysia Under-23s, he led the Harimau Muda to the 2007 Merdeka Tournament crown after defeating Myanmar in the final.
“The best moment in my coaching career? There are so many!” Sathianathan continued.
“At national level, it definitely has to be the Merdeka Tournament in 2007. Prior to that, Malaysia had not won anything so I’m proud to have gotten something for them. It was especially sweeter when we came up against senior sides in that tournament and emerged as champions.”
Capped by his country, it must have been a dream come true when Sathianathan was later named the head coach of the Malaysia national team that same year.
“I felt very proud when the late Sultan of Pahang and then-FAM president Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah announced that he wanted me to become the national team coach,” he enthused.
“I know they were looking for someone to fill the vacancy but decided I was good enough and gave me the job.”
His stint was however, not exactly smooth-sailing.
Going down 4-1 to Bahrain in his first game in charge of the senior side, Sathianathan would then take the Under-23s to the SEA Games the same year. The Harimau Muda however, crashed out in the group stages as they failed to secure a semi-final berth.
The following year, Sathianathan brought the Harimau Muda to the final of the Merdeka Tournament once again, only to go down to Vietnam on penalties. At the year-end AFF Suzuki Cup, Sathianathan failed to steer Malaysia out of a group comprising of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam which sparked rumours that he could be relieved of his duties.
While he eventually stayed on in his post, he was given the boot in February 2009 after Malaysia were thumped 5-0 by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in a 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifier.
It was hardly the ideal situation in terms of preparation, according to Sathianathan.
“With just five days of preparation, we were ill-prepared for that game. Many things went wrong off the field before the game and it frustrated me that I didn’t get my wish,” he shared.
“We didn’t manage to get an outrider to the stadium and transport allowances were not paid as well. Also, I wanted to play at the MBPJ Stadium as the pitch at Cheras suited UAE’s style of play. I went on to say “The M-League is not football”. That probably created a lot of unhappiness and they paid me off – which was something I had seen coming.”
But Sathianathan insists he has no regrets about his time with the FAM.
“I held different posts during my 18 years at FAM and worked with six foreigners and that was an experience in itself,” he said.
“At the end of the day, you live through the good and bad times. You don’t learn from the good times, but the bad instead and we can only look forward.”
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
Sathianathan’s departure from the national set-up would prove to be a turning point in his coaching career as he went on to make a name for himself in the MSL.
Success followed wherever he went. Lifting the Malaysia Cup with Kelantan FA in 2010, Sathianathan then brought second-division sides ATM FA and Felda United into the top-flight in 2012 and 2018 respectively.
In the process, he also picked up Best Coach award at the annual FAM awards in 2010, 2012 and 2017.
“These are moments I cannot forget,” Sathianathan added.
”Prior to 2010, Kelantan have never won any cup but we managed to get the Malaysia Cup that year and they started to become lynchpins in Malaysian football. I’m proud of it. There have also been many other moments, like bringing ATM from the Premier League right up to the finals of the Malaysia Cup.”
With the highs, comes the lows. In 2010, Sathianathan was once again embroiled in controversy as the outspoken coach was handed a six-month ban by the FAM for his comments about the national football body.
“I’m a guy who likes to speak my mind,” he said.
“It may cause a lot of controversy, but I don’t like to be involved in politics. I like to be honest. If you want to be professional, you have to be professional. Everyone has their own duties to perform. I am a coach and I don’t like an official who has never kicked a ball to tell me what to do.”
FOOTBALL IN SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIA
A keen observer of football from both sides of the Causeway, the self-proclaimed Jurgen Klopp fan believes there is a distinct difference between the two.
“If you ask me if Singapore or Malaysia football is better, I can tell you that Singaporeans are intelligent players and are not as shy as Malaysian boys,” Sathianathan noted.
“They are very outspoken and an example would be (Johor Darul Ta’zim captain) Hariss Harun. When he speaks, he looks at the camera and talks very well. If you look at Malaysian players, they will look down when interviewed and start fidgeting. Personality-wise, Singaporeans have it.
“But they are losing it in skill level and that may be because they are not playing enough. Take for instance, the gap between the Singapore Under-18s and Malaysia Under-18s is too far. It is unlikely another Hariss or (Khairul) Amri that will be produced in the near future.”
This season, Sathianathan can call upon a Singaporean in national defender Safuwan Baharudin – a player who is equally adept at playing in midfield as well.
“It was an easy decision for me,” he said.
“I’ve been following him at Pahang prior to this and I know I have a good buy. He has the necessary qualities in him. He is disciplined, loves the game, trains hard and most importantly has experience playing in Malaysia.
“I was approached earlier, but I said no because I was actually looking at a player from Thailand (to fill the foreign slot). But I changed my mind after watching Safuwan play against Yemen (in the World Cup qualifiers) last year. He played very well in that game and I called his agent immediately to arrange everything and bring him to Selangor.”
Turning 62 in May, Sathianathan has expressed his desire to go on for as long as he possibly can, and this includes the possibility of venturing out.
“Yes, I would love to coach outside Malaysia. Football is universal and one can go anywhere,” he admitted.
“In fact, I had the opportunity to work in Indonesia and India but something stopped me from taking up these opportunities to work outside Malaysia every time it happened.
“There is still time for me to continue coaching for maybe another eight years at least. You never know… It’s been interesting. You meet a lot of people and gone to many places, but the experience is something you can’t buy.”
Article: Junpiter Futbol/PJH
Photos: Junpiter Futbol