'Oppa' Pan-gon fuels historic football revival

15 Jan 2024 08:00pm
Kim Pan-gon. - Photo courtesy of FB FAM
Kim Pan-gon. - Photo courtesy of FB FAM

SHAH ALAM - Initially met with skepticism and jokes, South Korean coach Kim Pan-gon has silenced critics and transformed Malaysia's national football team in under two years.

This skepticism stemmed from the fact that the manager was considered relatively inexperienced, having not coached any national team other than Hong Kong (November 2012-December 2017).

Pan-gon's appointment was initially a subject of jokes among local fans, who pointed out his striking resemblance to actor Heo Sung-tae, known for portraying Jang Deok-su in the globally popular TV series, Squid Game.

Critics in the football community argued that Pan-gon's selection was inappropriate, given that his coaching caliber had not been adequately proven.

Pan-gon, a former player who operated as a winger, never made it to the South Korean national squad at any age level.

With Hong Kong, he only managed 16 wins out of 43 matches.

Changing Perceptions

In just under two years, Pan-gon successfully elevated Malaysia to the 130th position in the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) rankings.

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Last year, Malaysia collected 1,122.87 points to secure this rank, marking the most significant improvement among Asian countries.

More impressively, this ascent positioned Malaysia as the third-best team in terms of the most points gained in the FIFA rankings.

The last time Malaysia was in the 130-139 group worldwide was in August 2010.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the transformation of the national squad is also recognised by Southeast Asian football powerhouse Thailand, which commended Pan-gon for altering Malaysia's image.

Former Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang acknowledged Pan-gon's impact on the direction of Harimau Malaya.

Kiatisuk realised that Malaysia, under Pan-gon's guidance, adopted a different attacking approach, emphasising high-pressure and intensity, similar to the style played by the South Korean national team.

Not Luck, but Hard Work

Approximately five months after being appointed as the national team's manager on Jan 21, 2022, Pan-gon has already established himself as one of Harimau Malaya's most outstanding coaches in recent years.

This is based on the sudden improvement in the team's performance and playing style under his leadership.

His most significant achievement was ending Malaysia's 42-year wait to qualify on merit for the final round of the Asian Cup in Qatar.

According to transfermarkt.com statistics, Pan-gon recorded a 72.72 per cent win rate, with 19 wins out of 28 international matches since leading Harimau Malaya early last year.

This percentage significantly surpasses the 50 per cent winning record held by the previous national team coach, Tan Cheng Hoe.

One of the most dramatic victories occurred when Harimau Malaya came from behind 1-3 to overcome the 97th-ranked Kyrgyzstan 4-3 in the first match of Group D qualifying for the 2026 World Cup/2027 Asian Cup at the National Stadium, Bukit Jalil, on November 16 last year.

This comeback can be considered extraordinary, as Malaysians had not experienced such a thrilling and sweet victory in a long time.

It added further confidence in Pan-gon's leadership.

Chasing Magic in Qatar

Pan-gon's significant task awaits in the final round of the 2023 Asian Cup in Qatar, with Harimau Malaya drawn alongside Asian giants South Korea, Bahrain, and Jordan in Group E.

For this campaign, Malaysia plays its first match against Jordan early tomorrow morning (1.30am Malaysia time).

All attention is now focused on Pan-gon's tactical genius, whether his touch can lead Harimau Malaya to create surprises or just an early return.

With the outstanding performance under Pan-gon, it is not impossible for the Harimau Malaya squad to offer fierce competition in the Asian Cup, even though on paper, Malaysia appears to be the weakest team.

However, with an extraordinary winning percentage, football fans across the country dream of Harimau Malaya advancing further than the previous four editions.


Malaysia was ranked 154th in the world when Pan-gon took over the team in January 2022, and Harimau Malaya is currently at the 130th position.

Pan-gon replaced Tan Cheng Hoe, who resigned on Jan 2, 2022, following Malaysia's disappointing performance, failing to reach the semifinals of the 2020 AFF Cup in Singapore.

Pan-gon only needed five months to break the 43-year 'curse' to qualify for the Asian Cup on merit, the last time being in the 1980 edition held in Kuwait.

The success of transforming the fate of the Harimau Malaya squad within a 'blink of an eye' led to the extension of Pan-gon's service until 2025.

The decision to renew Pan-gon's contract is a crucial step as Harimau Malaya aspired to emerge as one of the top 18 teams in Asia, qualifying for the third round of the 2026 World Cup qualifiers.