The greatest football clubs on earth have stories that originate from small, humble beginnings. But the greatest clubs on earth are also weaved by different communities that co-exist within the cozy backyard of a quaint city – one that is left to constantly withstand the grueling test of time and change.
THE PJ FACTOR
It’s a no-brainer, really. A city like Petaling Jaya should have had a football club for decades. In fact, the cultural background of this city demands the existence of a football club. From the old, unassuming neighbourhoods that continue to breathe the air of SS1, to the melting pot of food culture that dominates the streets of SS3. You could almost imagine these ‘PJ people’ – as they are fondly referred to – packing into a stadium every weekend as the warriors of PJ engage in a battle to symbolically defend their heritage.
Selangor MPPJ FC were the saviours at one point – making a strong attempt at representing the PJ community at large. They turned the MPPJ Stadium into a fortress and went on to become the first ‘club’ side to clinch the prestigious Malaysia Cup in 2003. Remember Juan Manuel Arostegui? He was responsible for all three goals in their 3-0 win over Sabah in the final that year. But even that initiative crumbled eventually, as financial difficulties forced the club to be dissolved at the end of 2006.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
11 years later today, there’s another initiative, that’s aspiring to convert itself into a football revolution – Petaling Jaya Rangers. Initially founded as AirAsia FC back in 2011, Tony Fernandes and his team opted to rebrand the team as Petaling Jaya Rangers, towards the end of last year. The team is officially owned by AirAsia but as of now today, it’s being designed to be nothing other than a football club that represents PJ.
They’ve secured the rights to play their games at the MPPJ Stadium, they’ve hired an experienced coach in the form of Mat Zan Mat Aris, and they’ve got a host of decent players, including former JDT II anchor See Kok Luen, that are more than ready to spearhead their challenge in the FAM Cup this year. But when we caught up with PJ Rangers’ Deputy President, Simon Lim recently, there appears to be a bigger picture within this project.
“There’s a reason why Tony and all of us at the club picked PJ as our new backyard. It’s a beautiful city with so much of history in it, and it’s bit odd that it doesn’t have a football club, when it definitely deserves one. PJ people love their city and they value what it represents. Our goal is to now ensure this club represents those values and engage the community in creative ways to create a sense of belonging – which could possibly restore their faith in local football,” he told FourthOfficial.com
PJ Rangers made its competitive debut as a rebranded football club last week, when they played Premier League outfit UiTM FC in the first round of the FA Cup. Mat Zan’s men incurred a defeat in their first ever match, but as clichéd this may sound, there really were plenty of positives to absorb from that match. UiTM FC compete one division above them, and they are equipped with foreign players who looked dangerous throughout the 90 minutes. But despite having a squad that’s only made up local names, the Rangers were able to give a good account of themselves, before a late goal knocked them out of the competition.
They were scheduled to make their FAM Cup debut last weekend, but Sungai Ara’s decision to pull out of the competition meant that the fixture was effectively voided. As a result, their FAM Cup debut is now slated to take place this weekend, when they travel to the East Coast to face Terengganu City FC. However, Simon was quick to urge caution on managing expectations – claiming that it’s far more important for the club to prioritize long-term stability.
“The FAM Cup will be very important for us, and we believe we’ve got the right recipe to pose a threat as well. But at the same time, we don’t see a point in putting unnecessary pressure on the management and the team. We are a new team, and our squad is pretty new as well. We will work hard to get a good start and hopefully the momentum will help us grow stronger by the day. At the end of the day, we want to be a stable football club.”
MARKETING & BRANDING
This is another reason why PJ is uniquely positioned to help a burgeoning football club succeed over the long-term. The city is filled with multinational companies that have a vested interest within the community and it’s something PJ Rangers are determined to capitalize on. They’ve already established a partnership with MAMEE – who will be their main sponsors for 2017 – but Simon believes there’s more to come for several key reasons.
“Besides just running a football club, we’re trying to bring AirAsia’s culture into this team as well. The players can approach me or anyone else in the team if they have concerns. It’s very open, it’s very dialogue-based, exactly how Tony Fernandes runs things in AirAsia. That’s very important to us, because it helps us build a brand around the team.
“The positive brand we currently have helped us get a sponsorship deal with Mamee. Brands come to us when they see value in us. So we need to continuously expand that value, and AirAsia’s strength on the international market will help us do that greatly. PJ is home to some of the biggest companies in the country or even in the world. So hopefully with time, we can get more brands and companies on board our project.
BRAVING THROUGH ‘CHERNOBYL’
Visually, it sounds idealistic. But the folks in PJ Rangers are also prepared to play their cards right, given the context of the situation that they’re involved in right now. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that PJ folks have moved on from local football. The devastating match-fixing scandal in the 90s created a generational gap that continuously festered itself over the years.
As a result, the modern contemporary populace in PJ have seeped into a variety of other activities – a process that has also exploded as a result of modernisation. It’s easier to access malls than to visit stadiums. It’s easier to play computer games than go out and actively be a part of the beautiful game. It’s easier to subscribe to the Premier League narrative that’s glorified on television, than it is to have faith in a local football scene that has disappointed on countless occasions over the years. Just like Chernobyl, the ponds have dried up, the grasses are too tall, and the fear of radioactivity, or in this case disappointment, have turned people away as well.
Sure, you’ll have a small number of fans supporting Selangor or even PKNS FC, at this juncture. Then there’s the group of people who are actively involved in championing the growth of social leagues within the city. But the past non-existence of a football club that reflects the values, traditions, history or even the community that continues to be embedded in this city means it’ll be tricky for PJ Rangers to foster the sense of belonging.
“We know it’s going to be difficult. We have a large population of people living in Petaling Jaya, but a majority of team prefer to watch the Premier League on TV. Local football is often deemed unappealing. We need to change that, and we’ll need time to do so. Trust is key and the only way we can build long-term trust is if we actively engage the people of PJ, while working towards remaining a sustainable initiative.
“For the time being, we’re already in touch with a small number of fans who want to start an official PJ Rangers fan club. We’re trying to figure out ways to facilitate this process. At the same time, we are in the midst of planning and developing ideas for community engagement projects that will be executed over the next 48 months or so.”
A partnership with Queens Park Rangers was always inevitable and even Simon chuckled when I mentioned this to him during the interview. Tony Fernandes has built a reputation for getting the variety of brands under his tutelage to unite and help each other grow.
“We’ve also partnered Queens Park Rangers, and we’ve already started discussions on how QPR can help us develop as a club. They’ve been around for years, and they’ve represented their community brilliantly as well – something we can learn from.
“One of Tony’s plans is to build an academy for kids in PJ and get coaches from QPR to come over and be a part of it. We are currently in the process of identifying the right location to build and develop this academy. Can you imagine what it would be like for kids in PJ to have a dedicated football path being carved out for them?” Simon added.
PJ folks, what are your thoughts on Petaling Jaya Rangers FC? What would you want to see them do as a club? Let us know by commenting below!