My debut as a pundit with ATM goalkeeper Syed Adney Syed Hussein to discuss the Italy vs Uruguay game on Samba Brazil on Bernama TV that was hosted by Ben Ibrahim.
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”.
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)