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Bringing Malaysian Football Forward (Part 2)

In the first part of my essay, I reflected on the state of Malaysian football today. While recognising that in terms of regional success and fan-interest, there is a definite revival, yet it is time we no longer confine our ambitions to the Asean Football Federation Championship and SEA Games.

Yet, this does not mean instant cures by pouring in massive amounts of money in hiring prestigious coaches or even in the latest plan to send Harimau Muda A to a regional league competition in Australia that has been endorsed by Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin.

What I do agree with the ministry is their effort to draft a National Football Development Program that is more long-term and holistic in nature. The program is led by Lim Teong Kim, a former national player who had a stint with Hertha BSC and established himself as a youth coach for German powerhouse Bayern Munich.

As mentioned in the earlier part, Japan came to Malaysia in the 1990s to develop football and came out with a 100-year plan! Now, the country regularly qualifies for the World Cup. Part of their plan is to extend clubs in the J-League from 10 in 1993 to 100 a century later. The league is already the only A-ranked league in Asia and has 52 teams playing in three tiers. According to FIFA, Japan has nearly 2000 football clubs and over 4.8 million football players, of which nearly 22% are registered. Malaysia on the other hand, has 110 clubs and less than 600,000 players.

Worse still, less than 2% are registered! Our registered players also number less than our officials whereas for Japan, the ratio is four registered players to an official. Their national team is champions of Asia while the women’s team is world champions. Many of their top players ply their trade in the best teams in the top European leagues.

It is unfortunate that the response by FAM to this initiative has been lukewarm at best – because at first the ministry was considering including Annuar Musa who was suspended as FAM Deputy President for coming out with a “negative statement” on the national team in breach of the infamous Article 88 of the FAM Statute. Yet, it was Annuar who played a big role in shaking up Malaysian football especially making Kelantan – a team that had not won any major trophies before – into not only a sporting but also a commercial success.

Football development should be under the purview of FAM and Ministry of Youth and Sports. Yet in Malaysia today, much of that aspect is under the Ministry of Education and this has led to many turf wars in the past. We must note how Spain and Germany succeeds in the sport through a strong emphasis on youth development that not only enhances their domestic league but also their national team (in comparison to England which continues to be behind in terms of developing home-grown players and international football success).

The next step is to reform the domestic league that can feed from a robust youth development program. Today, interest in Malaysian football has been rekindled to the point that fans can look forward to an exciting atmosphere in the stadiums thanks to the various ultras of the different teams.

A writer using the name of Lucius Maximus penned an interesting book, Cerita Malaysia Tidak ke Piala Dunia that was published in 2012. One of the most radical suggestions that he made and which caught my eye was to dismantle the state teams that we have today, to be replaced by an entirely club-based domestic league. Instead, the state FAs should focus on development in the manner of the county FAs in England.

This might seem radical, or worse, counterintuitive. After all, the state teams have been the mainstay of our football tradition including the Malaysia Cup, Asia’s oldest national cup competition. Surely, just as fans are starting to come to the stadiums again, such a suggestion does not seem right?

Nevertheless, as the Japanese lesson teaches us, we need a league with a sufficient number of professional teams to provide the critical mass for us to progress. While clubs have been allowed to play in the top tier since the 1990s, few can match JDT from Johor in terms of organisation, financial sponsorship and fan support.

Many clubs continue to operate merely as corporate teams without a strong fan base. This was similar to the situation in Japan previously, but the authorities put a condition that clubs had to build stronger links with local governments and businesses in an effort to localise the club. Lucius suggests that the present state teams to be turned into local teams for the state capitals – thus Selangor would be a Shah Alam club team while Kelantan can be a Kota Baru club. Big cities and towns which are not state capitals – Petaling Jaya, Klang, Taiping, Batu Pahat, Sibu, Miri and Sandakan can all have its own professional clubs as well.

If the idea seems too radical, then there is nothing to stop from maintaining the present state teams but localising the club teams. What is key is to develop a bigger number of professional clubs that is crucial towards improving the quality of Malaysian football. All teams too must be required to invest in developing young football talent.

Finally, we need to reform the leadership of FAM and the state FAs. With all due respect, it is best to keep the royal families out of the formal structure of the football association. If need be, they can be honorary patrons while professionals or ex-players are allowed to run football associations. In the English FA for example, a member of the royal family will hold the position of honorary president but the chairman is responsible for day-to-day policy. Thus there can be an honest discussion about those who run FAM and state FAs without being “politically incorrect”.