While the tragedy of disappearing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has dominated the world’s headlines over the past few weeks, the current state of football in the country also remains a mystery. Barring a period of exciting football in the 1970s with an abundance of striking talent, the national team has faded quickly and recent and consistent revelations of corruption across the domestic competition do little to inspire confidence for the future.
Not content with introducing football to the rest of the Asia, the British introduced the game around the turn of the 20th century, having been rulers of the Malay Kingdoms since the 18th century. Although the game took hold rapidly, the British reputation for organisation was clearly ignored and pre-World War Two there were an array of regional competitions mirroring the melting pot of ethnic heritage present in Selangor, Perak, Malacca Negeri Simblan and Singapore.
1926 did bring with it some key progress with the separate regions amalgamating their amateur football associations to form the Malayan Football Association and then seven years later it was revamped to the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), based in Singapore.
A signature competition called the Malaya Cup proved to be a huge hit pitting state against state. This merger also allowed the association to create a Malayan team as opposition to a touring Australian side. Eventually the Malaya Cup would become the Malaysia Cup, currently the oldest football competition in the South-East Asian country and more coveted that the league title. The current format sees domestic teams from each region compete, with Selangor FA dominating.
Until 1951 the FAM was under the direction of successive British presidents until the legendary Tunku Abdul Rahman took the reigns, years before his appointment as Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and after stints at state football associations in the 1930s and 1940s. His influence was pivotal in gaining entry as a founding member of the Asian Football Federation and, soon after, membership of FIFA.
Rahman was football crazy, believing sports were vital for health and unity and quickly established tournaments for Under-18s as well as an international tournament called the Pestabola Merdeka (Independence Football Festival). His efforts saw a promotion to become president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) from 1956 until 1976.
Rahman’s reign coincided with the 1956 birth of the Federation of Malaya and independence from the British while the national team soon gained plaudits for a third place finish at the Asian Games in 1962. One year later a union with North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore would form what we know today as Malaysia and they narrowly lost 4-3 to Japan in their first appearance.
Singapore would be expelled from Malaysia just two years later and with them went a host of talented players, the most notable being Datuk Abdul Ghani Minhat.
Labeled ‘The Football King’, Minhat terrorised rival players with his skill as an inside forward; in today’s terms a second striker. He managed to score almost a goal a game for his main club Selangor FA and in 1962 netted 11 in a 15-1 national victory against the Philippines.
English league team Cardiff City took note and offered him a lucrative contract, but this was turned down and instead Minhat toured Europe for a short period playing exhibition games. Having spent his whole career at Selangor he finished with three in three for club Negeri Sembilan FA before retiring.
The late 1960s proved largely uneventful until the 1970s saw Malaysia’s greatest era yet. Qualifying for the 1972 Munich Olympics they swept aside the likes of Japan and South Korea en route before exiting with a win and two losses; the highlight a comfortable 3-0 victory over the United States. This appearance at the game proved to be their only one to date. However building in stature and confidence, Malaysia first attempted qualification for the World Cup just two years, but as expected failed to reach Germany ‘74.
The nation would have more success at the regional Asian Games, the tournament producing a third place finish in 1974. Star-striker Mokhtar Dahari was just two years into a career that would see him score 125 times in 137 games for the nation as well as almost 200 goals for club team Selangor FA.
Earning the nickname ‘SuperMokh’ he played against Bobby Robson’s England ‘B’ team in 1978 and stunned the opposition with his Maradona-like footwork, dribbling past half the team to score in 1-1 draw. Retiring in 1988, he would tragically die at just 37 in 1991 after fighting Motor Neurone disease.
Alongside Dahari leading the front line was James Wong and Hassan Sani, Wong becoming the first player selected from the largely forgotten province of Sabah in East Malaysia. Starting out as a goalkeeper for the under-20 team he switched to a forward and played for Australian team Sydney Hakoah for two years in the 1970s.
Fellow Sabahan, Sani, completed the prolific trio, even coming back after retirement to play for Malaysia’s beach soccer team in the 1990s. Sadly this talented group was denied the chance to play at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow as they followed the lead of the United States and boycotted in protest at the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan invasion.
Despite two of their three total appearances at the continents pinnacle AFC Asian Cup coming in 1976 and 1980, the close of the decade and their star’s subsequent retirement marked Malaysia’s slide to obscurity. It was not until 1979 that the first national competitive league was formed but it was restricted to just state FAs including the police, armed forces and fully-fledged nations Brunei and Singapore.
Essentially it began as just a qualifying tournament for the Malaysia Cup and gradually gained stature as the premium competition in the country. The league’s first decade saw multiple winners but Selangor FA came out on top with three titles.
The 1980s barely registered any notable national team victories and an undercurrent was building in domestic circles that would shake Malaysian football to its core. In 1994 a bribery scandal was uncovered when an investigation into the countries domestic league cited 126 players for questioning. The result was shattering. 58 players were suspended and handed hefty fines and 21 coaches and players lost their jobs.
For what it was worth, the 1990s titles were shared broadly, one a piece between the FA teams of Johor, Selangor, Kedah, Singapore, Sabah, Penang and Sarawak with Pahang reigning supreme with three trophies.
On the pitch the national team continued to disappoint; off it a succession of coaches came and went including highly respected Frenchman Claude Le Roy, until hopes were raised with the appointment of Allan Harris in 2001, their fifth English manager. Lasting a relatively long four years the former Tottenham and Barcelona assistant failed to progress and somehow only beat a reality TV amateur team 1-0 in 2006.
In 2007 they did manage their third and most recent appearance to date at the AFC Asian Cup but lost all three fixtures at the finals and conceding 12 goals. There were calls for minor celebration when Malaysia won the 2010 AFF Football Championship, a bi-annual competition hosting South East Asia’s nations, although admittedly the strongest opposition was the Philippines and Thailand.
The noughties were a time of change for the domestic competition as the M-League was replaced with the Malaysia Super League in 2004. The decade also saw multiple, at times confusing, changes almost every other season to the format of the competition.
Pahang FA would win the debut campaign but would be outdone by Perak FA, Kedah FA, Selangor FA and Kelantan FA with a couple of titles each in the last ten years. Current champions are the 2011 reformed LionsXII, a Singapore based team that are the incarnation of Singapore FA. They remain the second most successful team in Malaysia with 32 trophies across all the nation’s several domestic cups, behind Selangor FA with 60. Perak FA, Kedah FA and Penang FA make up the rest of the top 5 with 17, 15 and 14 cups respectively.
Many believe Malaysian football has never truly recovered from the 1994 scandal and in the current decade the FMA handed life-bans to 18 youth players and their coach. A year later club team Perak FA would even suspend all coaches and officials for two weeks when they uncovered match fixing.
Ranked at 141 in the world, this month also saw failure to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup. Talent in the squad is minimal with most praise directed towards 30 year-old striker Safee Sali and his 21 goals in 54 games for Malaysia. Even as their most prolific player he could only command a $30,000 transfer fee for his last move, despite outlandish rumours England’s QPR were keen on his services.
Some critics have suggested when football was operated by football experts, such as Tunku Abdul Rahman, football flourished. But it is now being used as a tool by the governing figures that happen to be politicians.
The consistent revelations of bribery and match fixing are just the tip of the iceberg with true football fans shuddering at the real depth of corruption passing off weekly as the norm in Malaysia. Plans to privatize the Malaysian Super League in 2015 appear to be another attempt to change its fortunes and the result remains to be seen.
Ultimately with the current national squad completely domestic-based and no closer to performing on the world stage, not to mention the Asian stage, finding the formula to recreate the golden years looks increasingly unlikely.