Appointing Rajagobal Krishnasamy as the new full-time national team head coach is a masterstroke that could eventually lead to seismic transformational changes in the Brunei football landscape.

The 64-year-old Malaysian arrives at the sultanate with an impressive Southeast Asian football pedigree, having guided his native country to success in the 2009 Southeast Asian Games men’s football tournament and 2010 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship.

As he begins his first overseas coaching assignment on 1 January 2021, AseanBola explores the potential ripple effects of the highly-esteemed Southeast Asian’s coaching appointment. 

Solitary National Head Coach Post Shows Serious Intent

The appointment of Rajagopal as Brunei’s first full-time national team head coach without a secondary role this century shows the seriousness in the sultanate’s football governing body the National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam (NFABD) in charting the game on the pitch.

Previously, the national team head coach was appointed on an ad-hoc assignment basis, depending on the competition the Wasps were involved in. He was either appointed in-house or a full-time head coach with the country’s sole professional football club Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota (DPMM) FC.

The Brunei national team that featured in the second leg of the 2022 FIFA World Cup first Asian qualifying playoff at home. (Photo Credit: Borneo Bulletin)

Notably, a couple of previous head coach appointments, Singaporean Mike Wong Mun Heng and Rajagobal’s previous permanent predecessor Paul Smalley of England, were also full-time technical directors during their respective stints at NFABD.

The Malaysian has free rein in planning and deciding how the national team will approach their immediate upcoming international commitments, mainly the AFF Championship (now branded as AFF Suzuki Cup for sponsorship reasons), without the distraction of an additional role.

With the playoffs set to held in the second half of 2021, Rajagobal will have sufficient time to mould a competitive side ready to qualify for their first AFF Championship finals since 1996.

Natural Knowledge of Nusantara Bola

Born and bred in the maritime sub-region of Southeast Asia, also known as Nusantara in Bahasa, Rajagobal has the intimate knowledge of the unique football conditions in this part of the world first-hand.

During his time as Malaysia national team head coach from 2009 to 2013, he had nurtured a young generation of footballers led by the likes of Safiq Rahim, Safee Sali and Kunanlan Subramaniam to international success, erasing the humiliation of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup fiasco on home soil in local football memories.

By re-establishing Malaysia as a leading regional football powerhouse after the continental shame, the former international winger became a highly-esteemed regional tactician and showed he can do as fine a job as the European and South American expatriates in the region.  

K. Rajagobal feted by his Malaysia players after leading them to international success. Brunei will be hoping for similar scenes with their players. (Photo Credit: Facebook/AFF Suzuki Cup)

For his ability to understand, appreciate and live the Nusantara way of life and converse in Bahasa and English, the dual lingua spoken by Bruneians places him in an advantageous position to succeed from the get-go.

His diplomatic handling of the players will also ease the potentially awkward interactions between those from DPMM FC, past and present, and the rest from the local sides when they convene for international duty.

Seeking A Medium-Term Build-up Beyond One-Off Results

In the 2010s, Brunei broke through with sporadic positive international results, recording one-leg wins over Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and Mongolia at the first hurdle of their 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns respectively.

While the Wasps also enjoyed a positive 2016 AFC Solidarity Cup campaign, a continental tournament for Asian minnows, with a fourth-place finish, they had not made an AFF Championship finals appearance since the inaugural edition in 1996.

By handing Rajagobal the mandate to coach the national team without added distractions, NFABD is hoping he will go beyond providing successful qualification for the 2021 AFF Suzuki Cup finals and establish the Wasps as a credible, competitive team in Southeast Asia.

Brunei (in white) had not qualified for the AFF Championship finals since 1996, with their last attempt (Adi Said in action in white, middle) in 2018 ending in aggregate playoff defeat to Timor Leste (in red and black). (Photo Credit: AFF Suzuki Cup)

Although the quality and depth in the Brunei national team are at a lower level than his native Malaysia, he has some decent material to work on for his immediate international assignment and beyond.

In the likes of veterans Wardun Yussof, Shahrazen Said and Sairol Sahari, they provide extensive international experience, having turned out for the national team in various competitions in the 2000s and 2010s. They will be motivated to end their international careers on a high by competing in the AFF Suzuki Cup finals.

Rajagobal can also count on decent young and mid-career players to form the new core of the Wasps. Haimie Nyaring is touted as Wardun’s eventual successor, having impressed for DPMM FC between the posts in the 2018 Singapore league campaign, while playmaker Azwan Ali Rahman is a permanent presence and was the 2015 S.League (now Singapore Premier League) Young Player of the Year.

His biggest satisfaction as Brunei coach will come if he can rejuvenate talented striker Adi Said, who was once competing for Malaysian side UiTM FC in the professional Malaysian league but is now plying for local semi-pro side Kota Ranger, and tactically integrate royalty footballer Faiq Bolkiah, presently based with Portuguese top-flight side Maritimo.

Expect only Good Things from Rajagobal’s Appointment

Having not worked for close to a year since leaving his last coaching job at Selangor PKNS following its reformation as the feeder side to Selangor after 2019, Rajagobal is hungry to get back into the day-to-day working life as the new Brunei head coach.

Working in a similar cultural environment as he has in his native Malaysia, his personal humility, affability and willingness to integrate into Brunei football and way of life provides the positive foundations for him to succeed from the get-go.

These will prompt veterans, stalwarts and young players alike to pull together, especially the former who might have already thought of international retirement one last shot for a fellow Nusantara big brother they respect in Southeast Asian football.