This is How We Play Ball: the State of Football in Malaysia

Our homegrown footballers deserve much more than offhanded cynicism. 
Thursday 21 June 2018
Photo: Kim Mun

According to a Premier League survey, Malaysia with a population of over 32 million, has approximately 13.6 million football fans and 9.4 million English Premier League fans. Malaysian billionaires Tony Fernandes and Vincent Tan own British football clubs.

There is no doubt that we as a nation are officially football mad.

Sadly, Malaysians have less enthusiasm about their homegrown teams. It is a fact that players such as Mokhtar Dahari, Khalid Ali, R. Arumugam, Hassan Sani, James Wong, Soh Chin Aun and Santokh Singh are revered as legends in the country, and the football euphoria of the 1970s was captured by the record-breaking film and later musical, Ola Bola.

But the enthusiasm for the days when Malaysian football was great is limited to just that: Nostalgia.

Like Brando said in the film, The Waterfront: “I could have been a contender.”

Every four years when Malaysians go ballistic over the World Cup, and manically support the teams they favour from Germany to Brazil, the national team remains left out in the cold.

While our athletes in badminton, squash, gymnastics and diving have been amongst the top competitors in the world, it is not so for football. It is baffling that football, which is arguably the most popular sporting hobby in the country (since we probably have as many, if not more, futsal centres as golf courses), remains so far behind.

Change thankfully is afoot; it began when the teams started to slowly privatise in the early 2000s. Today the top two levels of the Malaysian Leagues teams are organised under Football Malaysia LLP (or Limited Liability Partnership, which was created to privatise professional football leagues in Malaysia) and the rest of football in a rather complex interconnected league under the FAM.

The top two leagues are flush with cash thanks to an annual RM60 million injection from telco giant Telekom Malaysia, which will amount to nearly half a billion ringgit over the next eight years. In addition, Ampersand Sports will bring inRM20 million, while Patrick Grove’s iflix deal will bring in RM10 million.

Could this finally bring about the radical change needed to bolster local football to the standards they need to contend internationally?

When I spoke to John Petruse of the FMLLP, the management body of five major leagues in the country, he says, “Promotion for football has always been done at grassroots level where the audience is. But the time has come to promote it to a wider, urban audience so that it can be as popular as the English Premier League.”

There is an equation here. More cash means more promotion, more promotion means more fans filling the stadiums. More fans means more cash for players but also more importantly, more fans means more motivation for the teams to play better.

To get a better idea of what is happening behind the scenes in Malaysian football, we can do no better than to speak to the players themselves.

These three men themselves were the subject of much giggling and cooing over WhatsApp by my crew before I got to the shoot, and when I arrived, I realised why. Damn, they look good.

Enter Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, Syed Adney Syed Hussein and Stuart Wark.

Shy at first, they were quick to warm up once the formalities were over. We started by talking about their passion – football (what else). They were articulate and earnest in their opinions. Khairul was the first to state that football in this country has become better managed and more professional compared to the time at the start of his career.

Syed Adney feels that it all began when the Crown Prince of Johor took over the reins of the state’s team. He says, “TMJ (The Crown Prince) has transformed a lot of things…even when he was at the FAM… there is more merchandising, more meet-the-fans sessions. There is a lot of work that he does behind the scenes that people don’t know about.”

“This year is the first year that you have got all live games on streaming services like iflix and unifi. But though the fans can access us on these channels, they are still seeing us atthe stadiums.”

All three declare in unison that fan support at the stadium does equal better football.

Stuart says, “When you have 20,000 to 40,000 people screaming for you, that gives you motivation.” Adney chimes in, “You could be really tired, but you won’t feel it because their support gives you that extra push. On the other hand, sometimes if you are down, the fans start condemning you, and that just brings your morale down further. In the English Premier League, the fans there, they keep on cheering, and that’s where our fans need to be.”

It seems like the fans themselves need to evolve with the sport to help improve the quality of football. Adney feels that the key element in bringing quality football to the game, and what is lacking in local teams, is better team coordination and for the individuals themselves to literally think faster on their feet as the game is on.

Furthermore, football like any sport is a game for the young, and they need to start younger. Adney says lack of facilities such as good pitches and training on basic football techniques could be improved at school level.

But Stuart says, “Things are beginning to improve though, you have academies popping up here and there and they are beginning to do community programmes to bring football to the kids. I think that’s going in the right direction and kids are getting a lot more exposure to football and sports in general.”

I then countered with the fact that football in Brazil is played on the streets and in the favelas, lack of funds or shoes notwithstanding, and that has not prevented them from producing a world-class champion team.

Passion to watch the game it seems is not equal to passion to play the game. Khairul interjects with, “It’s our culture and family life, it’s not conducive to playing with passion.”

Adney agrees and adds, “Nowadays kids are too busy on their phones or in malls. Parents themselves are not necessarily encouraging themto play football. Maybe as a hobby, but not to be taken too seriously.”

UNRESERVED adds here that if our children were more active, Malaysia could potentially relinquish the crown of being the most obese nation in Southeast Asia. But we digress.

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So given that Asian parents are loath to encourage their children to pursue careers in either the arts or sports, the path they will let us pursue must ‘show them the money.’

So can you make money from football? At this point there was a lot of nervous laughter with Adney stating, “In Europe, it’s very open…but in Malaysia, (that information) is a little more closed.”

John Petruse from the FMLLP says that on average a good footballer today can make up to RM60,000 (US$15,000) a month. That’s certainly not chump change. Stuart adds that “In Malaysia, you can jump from the third division straight to the first if you’re good, it can be very quick. And it can be life changing.”

As Khairul states, “If you perform, you get paid.” Malaysian Football in the last decade has jumped light years from where it was. With heavyweights such as serial entrepreneur Patrick Grove who are willing to play ball with their investments, football could see a brighter future very soon.

For all those corporations and billionaires out there who spend their money on foreign football, UNRESERVED shamelessly says, spend some of your loose change here and support a worthy cause.

Malaysian football, in terms of quality and the men who play the game, have never looked this good.

Related: Malaysian Footballers Play the Whisper Challenge