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Bringing Malaysian Football Forward (Part 1)

2014 is another World Cup year. This time around it will be in the country with the most World Cups to their name, Brazil, for the second time in its history. Thus for football fans worldwide, this will be another exciting year, even if in Malaysia it will mean long nights and early mornings due to the time difference. My constituency, Seri Setia, is the home to D’Stall Corner Kelana Jaya, is a well-known football café, particularly for Liverpool fans (like me).

Unfortunately however, while football is the most popular sport in the country, the state of our football is miserable.

To be fair, there have been some positive signs, resulting in a revival of fan interest since the corruption scandal and departure of Singapore from the league in the mid-1990s. In 2009, our under-23 team, Harimau Muda, captured the SEA Games gold medal after a long period of dominance by Thailand and successfully defended the title two years later. In between, the senior team, Harimau Malaya, won the AFF Suzuki Cup. Unfortunately, we have now lost both titles.

Glaringly still, we can only dream of being champions in Southeast Asia, not competing at the highest levels at the world or even Asia. After all we have qualified for the Olympics twice and were a major Asian football powerhouse during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1999, FAM stated that they were pursuing a major revamp with the target of getting Malaysia to the World Cup by 2014!

Yet here we are, in 2014, and other than those small joys, Malaysia is far from getting to the World Cup. In the latest FIFA rankings, we are ranked at no. 154 in the world. Sadly, in Southeast Asia we are below the Philippines (127), Myanmar (130), Vietnam (144), Thailand (146), Singapore (150) and Laos (152)! Philippines of course, is not even a footballing nation unlike Malaysia! Our performances in the regional tournaments suggest that we should at least be in the top four in the region rather than seventh, but this is a result of a lack of international A matches that are recognised by FIFA.

While the Malaysia Cup is the oldest national cup competition in Asia, the Malaysian Super League today is graded D and ranked 18th in the continent. As such, our domestic teams do not qualify for elite Asian Champions League. Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam’s domestic leagues are all ranked above ours. Singapore, as many of us would remember, only started their S-League in 1996 after they withdrew from our domestic league. Yet today only Harimau Muda B (our team that plays in the S League) can qualify through play offs to the Asian Champions League while teams playing in the Malaysian Super League cannot do so. Our domestic teams can only qualify to the AFC Cup tournament which is for ‘emerging’ football nations.

These rankings matter. It is the first measure for any outsider when they look at Malaysian football. In a more obvious example, we cannot leverage on the two British clubs owned by Malaysians – Cardiff City FC and Queens Park Rangers – because it is difficult for any player from countries ranked below the top 70 by FIFA to be granted a work permit. That was the fact when there was talk about our stars such as Safee Sali and Safiq Rahim going to those clubs.

So where do we go from now?

After K. Rajagopal’s contract expired last year, there was talk of hiring top French coach Philippe Troussier – who has vast experience coaching Japan, South Africa and Nigeria – to coach Harimau Malaya. Troussier however is said to be asking for a salary of about RM400,000 a month. The reality is, with the state of our football today, an instant cure, no matter how expensive will not work.

In the next part, I will look at how we can move forward. Central to this will be a country where football is still competing with baseball and most importantly only emerged as a footballing nation in the 1990s, Japan. Previously, it was lagging behind us and they actually visited Malaysia to learn about developing the sport! They introduced a 100-year plan for their football. But even now, barely two decades on, it’s already making headways and they have set a target of winning the World Cup in 2050, just barely halfway into their 100-year plan.

We must remember, Malaysia boleh!

(To be continued)