The Problems Afflicting Malaysian Football.

So much too say, where to start?

Everyday we hear negative tales of Malaysian football-from the press, the pundits and the average joe on the street. Now I want to have a go.

I'll begin by dividing the issues as follows:


Rarely are these issues mutually exclusive of the other so let's have a go:

First, it's great to read today that the deputy president is going to quit FAM. It is about time that the entire council quit en masse. I've had enough of people saying that he cares greatly about the game. I'm sure he does but for all practical purposes he has been the de facto president and has overseen perhaps Malaysia's lowest ebb in football. He must go, and thankfully he has.

Malaysian football went semi-pro in 1989 and fully pro a few years ago. The first few years were an unqualified success. Local football grew in popularity, more $$$ flooded in and stadiums saw thousands stream through the gates. However, 2 matters soon came to a head to dent the popularity of the local game. First, match fixing destroyed any credibility in the game, and the suspension of over 50 players destroyed the backbone of the national team, of which we have still to recover. Second, the beaming of live matches from England, Spain and Italy compounded this problem as people choose to watch higher quality matches. Indeed, Peter Velappan has noted this to be an issue within the leagues in the AFC. Other reasons for the decline has been due to the expulsion of Singapore, constant mismanagement of the league structure, incompetent administartion and the ending of tobacco sponsorship.

Administratively, Malaysian sports have been historically run in a manner parallel to the feudalistic system of governance Malaysia has long followed. Presidents tend to be sultans or politicians, and a series of kow-towing vassals nod and agree with everything they say. There is precious little accountability, and leadership stability (especially with politicians) depends greatly on the power of the said politician. There is no inherent professional set-up in a so-called professional league. This is not to say that such a system cannot work under an effective 'strong-man' leadership. Elyas Omar showed that with KL in the league and BAM winning the Thomas Cup in 1992. To extend the analogy to an extreme, Malaysia did rather well with Mahathir in the helm for 20 odd years. Yet, the BAM is now a running joke as there's usually a vacuum once a strong man departs. The administrative institutions of Malaysian sports are fundamentally weak, are are generally incapable of handling the exit of effective leaders. In terms of the FAM, I feel the departure of the effective Paul Mony led to a decline in the administrative quality of the association.

We should look at squash as a good example of effective sports-management. Politicians are kept at an arms length and the administration of it is second to none. However, I'm not here to bash politicians. My overwhelming desire is to see improvements in the local game and if I thought the feudalistic system is the way to go, I'd say so. But it is clearly not working, not because the concept itself is wrong per se, but because it is not effective. The administration of football is fundamental to the development of the game itself in Malaysia, certainy as far as the local league is concerned. Having said this, banana republic-like administration in South America and Africa has hardly dented development of football there, but I counter by asking just how much better would they be with effective administration?

First, accountability is a must. The leadership group of a state association and the FAM must be directly electable and be able to give 100% to the job. Perhaps there is still a place for a ceremonial presidential role, but it is the 'CEO' post (so to speak) that is crucial. This person cannot possibly be a politician, because the job requires undivided attention. All politicians (even those who care about the game, and face it, I'm sure those involved are fans) must do right for the game and withdraw because depsite good attentions (like plowing their own money without any reward) they are an obstacle to good adminstration of football. When they lose out on the political front, their power ebbs away and a new politician takes over and we start anew again. Where the royal houses are involved, the situation is even worse, because no one dares raise their voice. Here, we have stability, but mediocre stability. Royalty in adminstrative roles must also make themselves accountable, and not expect their vassals to say so, as this they will never dare do. It's not enough to make these posts electable, because they'll be voted in everytime by the said vassals. There must be genuine choice, and so perhaps, if vassals aren't capable of asking for change, the royalty must do so themselves, in the interest of the game.

We cannot blame those at the top for all this because they are surrounded by yes-men who are more concerned with their power-little Napoleons, if you wish. However, those at the top must see above all this, must realise that the replies to their queries are at times, insincere. They cannot continue like this because football fans are well aware that they are like the emperor with no clothes-this isn't pointed out because unlike the innocent juvenile who points out the blatantly obvious, we, the fans, are not innocent by-standers in all of this. We have allowed this matter to fester for far too long, and now sit impotent, and are fearful to attack the fundamental issues afflicting local football. We attack the periphery issues (unprofessional player behaviour for example) and not the root cause of the problem. I sincerely doubt, given our historical perspective and sense of deferrence to authority that there will be a 'mass-uprising' of football fans overthrowing the FAM and hanging office-earers from the nearest coconut tree, so we need some 'self-enlightening' leadership to take care of this themselves, with some external pressure.

This external pressure is the federal government. Already, to a certain extent, we have seen this occur. We can learn a lot from Australia in this regard. Years of mismanagement and self-interest in the leadership of Soccer Australia had destroyed the domestic game, much like Malaysia, if not worse. Given that governmental funding is an important source of revenue to the game (as in Malaysia), the government initiated the Crawford Review which found the blatantly obvious. Their recommendations were clear and unambiguous, and made the then administration of Soccer Australia untenable. However, FIFA does not allow for government's to meddle with their FAs so the government merely threatened to withold funding if the recommendations were not carried out. The footballing people of Australia took note of this and overthrew the dictators and a few years later, you yourself can see what has happened to Australian soccer. We must have the same review, but then it is up to us, the football fraternity, to topple the leadership, as in Australia. An objective government review will surely give us all the ammunition we need-we merely need to pull the trigger, but will we have the guts to do so?

Doing nothing is not an option. For as long as we hear of bankrupt FAs, unpaid player salaries, foreign players living on sardines after being lied to, and Kelly Tham taking SAFAs assets, football will never get anywhere.

Finance is an issue of course, but perhaps not in the manner most people think. Money-wise, international football is naturally economically inefficient. Very few clubs are run on a profit motive, unlike franchise based American sports. For example, Real Madrid is millions in debt, but the debt will never be called because they also happen to be fans. Clubs like Chelsea live off a sugar-daddy, as do most Italian clubs. When Manchester United went public and became the richest club in the world, they found that transparency, and keeping profitable kept them from purchasing some of their targets. In this sense, we mustn't expect M-League teams to be profitable. We need accountability in administration of finances, but not a profit motive. This is not an argument for throwing money away but I doubt even during the glory years of the M-League that any team at any time turned a profit. The money provided must be used better, and accountability plays a part in that. A professional administration is a must. The ending of tobacco sponsorship hit a raw nerve as was the cutting of grants to state FAs but this period also coincided with the fall in popularity of the game (match fixing and live EPL), and it doesn't necessarily follow that it caused the downturn in the game. Proper administration can help find more money and sponsorship, and re-popularise the domestic game.

The game needs a capital injection, and annually a capital top-up. In this instance I believe we can follow by NOT following the Australian example. The recently formed A-League is based on a profit motive, but already after 1 year it is pretty clear it won't happen anytime soon, if ever. Should this prove true, will the investors pull the plug and once again destroy the dream of a vibrant domestic Australian league? I suppose one argument here is politicians can find money for teams, but as previously mentioned, they are also a big problem in our game, so perhaps we need to diversify our revenue sources. Use the money well, but make sure the tap doesn't run dry!

Both a good administration and financial source is necessary for developing the grassroots. The former is clear but the latter is also necessary as most money probably finds itself in the league or national team, where results are more immediate. Just as governments throw money at education to obtain skilled adult citizens so we must do it to kids to get good adult footballers. We need proper academies, proper maintained facilities, a youth league and proper coaching structures. Before anything else, we need to invest in coaching. Send them overseas, if necessary, to get proper training and experience. The cheaper option is to get good foreign coaches in along with good local coaches (the latter are often taken for granted)to help train the next generation of coaches. The next generation of players must know what studs to wear when it rains, what to eat, how to think tactically, in short - have a professional attitude. Let's put most of our money today here and not the league. The 'get-quick-rich' scheme of the M-league will never generate the same level of 'return' as putting money away into your EPF account, so to speak. Don't ignore the league, sure, but let's not forget that the long term improvement in the league will arise out of better quality players in the future.

Finally, we have the league. Again, we need good administration and financial injections. First, we need to be clear about the ultimate goal of the league-club success, player improvement, or the national team? Of course they need not be mutually exclusive of each other, but perhaps the M-League needs a constitution, just like a nation. Let's not keep making rules on the run, let's set them in stone. Stability and credibility is a must. I think two things need to happen in the short-run to make the league workable (above and beyond good administration and finance).

First, we need to take a backward step - we need to go semi-professional in terms of players (and certainly not administration). This is as salaries are not high enough for those with other options, and so we are facing a smaller pool of potential players than otherwise would be the case. I hazard a guess that the fall in the number of ethnic Chinese players in the league is caused by the lack of money players earn today compared to a few years ago. As an ethnicity, it is fair to say that the Chinese are the most economically successful and have more options in terms of employing their time monetarily. In the amateur era, the top players were akin the 'amateurs' of the Eastern Bloc communist states; officially they had other jobs, but the reality was during the season, they had enough 'leave' to be almost professional (though they had to work in their normal jobs off-season). To widen our pool of players, we probably need to give players an option. Historically, the great Dutch 'total-football' team had a few semi-pro players, as the Dutch league in the 1970s was a semi-pro one, unlike in neighbouring countries. I am unsure why this was so, but perhaps if it was fully professional, some of these players might have decided to forego playing football seriously. I really think this suggestion deserves some consideration.

Second, we need Singapore back, and Singapore needs us. Their league is watched by no one, and sometimes, so is ours. Together, we can recapture the glory days of the league. However, this needs to be done on an equal footing so Singapore does not feel like a pariah again, as it probably did earlier. Perhaps the M-League needs to be separate from the FAM. If the FAM, FAS and Brunei can get together and programme their international calendar uniformly, then the M-league can be run separately from the respective national administrations. This might, of course, lead to a divergence in league and national team interests, but perhaps this can be balanced properly.

As well, the league can contract some quality players (however defined) like the American MLS and loan them out to teams. This can help cut wage costs and guarantee salary payments to these star players. Perhaps these should be foreign players, or national players. The league should also have enough rivalries, and in this respect, a return to the states and Singapore allows for this. Don't forget, we need not create a rivalry, it is already historically evident (Selangor and Singapore for example). A two-tiered system need not be present in order to avoid mediocrity as a single division where the top 8 qualify for the Malaysia Cup proper will render only a few season ending matches meaningless, and help 'reduce' mediocrity somewhat in a system without relegation.

We can dream, and of course we do, but sometimes we dream too much, and achieve nothing, or initiate grandiose plans without even learning the basics. Ultimately, we must be realistic and take baby steps. We need to get the foundations right, and if that means another 20 years of mediocrity so be it. But at this rate we'll get an eternity of it, and how will that help us? So let's revolutionise our football administration, and most of the other issues affecting Malaysian football can be tackled effectively. This will be the hardest step, because this is where we need to overthrow heavily vested interests, but without tackling it, we can forget about dealing with finances, grassroots or the league. It will be largely ineffective and meaningless.

Oh well, my view anyway. If anyone actually reads it, let me know what you think.

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