Legendary singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, recently won a Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s relevant because I find myself singing one of his classics whenever I read about the latest developments in Malaysian Football. “The times they are a-changing” is the perfect way to describe the first few weeks of The Tengku Makhota of Johor’s (TMJ’s) Presidency at the Football Association of Malaysia.
“THE CURSE IT IS CAST”
Many in the game, and in the press, and in the stadiums, don’t like the way things are changing. An early kerfuffle surrounding the re-assignment (or demotion) of Datuk Ong Kim Swee from the national team to the SEA Games team, the paying off of the beleaguered Frank Bernhardt from the under 22’s, and the start-stop appointment of Mario Gomez as National Team Manager have got the nerves a-jangling and the tongues-a-wagging.
More consternation followed when it was revealed that Tan Cheng Hoe was the preferred assistant to Gomez (before the Argentine chose not to take the National job) as it was speculated that TMJ was wearing his Johor hat and looking to weaken a key rival to JDT, rather than his FAM Presidential hat which was trying to source a strong local Coach to assist The National Team.
There have been other moans and groans from some fans about a pro-Johor agenda and comments that decisions are going Johor’s way, whilst others seem concerned that the FAM President is airing his views on social media – seeing this as an inappropriate method of communication.
“THE LINE IT IS DRAWN”
But this correspondent is exhilarated by the TMJ’s early influence. Not all of his ideas will work, and mistakes will no doubt be made. And when they are, it is right that journalists pick up on them and challenge him.
Personally, I see the Video Review system (VAR) for referees as a flawed idea unless all matches are fully televised with multi-cameras. That’s not the case at the moment. But VAR at least addresses any criticism that the FAM are not aware or taking action to address perceived problems. The breath of fresh air emanating from the FAM Presidential office is simply fantastic news for Malaysian football.
On a national level, TMJ has stated that the National Team coach will be a foreigner, and that foreigner will earn a salary that the FAM can afford. More, it has been decreed that his assistant will be the best local coach available. Mario Gomez was outside the financial scope of the FAM and so couldn’t or wouldn’t take up his position. Tan Cheng Hoe is by reputation, achievement and background, the best young Malaysian Coach. TMJ is delivering what he said he would deliver. While I don’t agree with that idea as I believe a coach must surely be able to choose his own back-up team, they are the clear guidelines and there is a logic behind the decree. Most important, it is transparent to all.
Players have been buoyed by the news that teams who delay paying salaries will be docked points. And to ensure that teams/clubs have no excuses for delaying payments – such as being owed money by the FAM – they have been paid any money owed to them by the FAM. It’s now over to the clubs and late payment to players can now, justifiably be sanctioned by the docking of points. It’s a great example of the new President understanding exactly who the most important people in football are – the players.
He also understands that football is for fans. The fact that he has responded to criticism from fans illustrates that he is aware of, and hearing, what they say. He may not like it, and his social media approach to respond is seen as a negative by others. But approve or disapprove, what a difference in attitude. You are allowed to criticize. But make sure you are ready for a response. You can call out referees, but ensure that your argument is sound or else an ultra-modern and engaged FAM President will call you out in return. On a public forum.
TMJ’s work in Johor to put in place a proper media team to market JDT and make a visit to the Larkin Stadium an event surrounding a good football match perfectly illustrates that there is an importance placed on the fan. ‘Fan engagement’ is the modern parlance for it – something seemingly alien to the football experience in Malaysia at all bar Johor.
The very idea of pre-match or half time entertainment in Malaysia is still rare. Where are the kids’ games or sponsored penalty shoot-outs? Where is the local band given a chance to entertain, or even dance groups to strut their stuff on the pitch? Where are the fun elements? Is there a club – Johor apart – out there who genuinely has the fan at the front of their consciousness?
“AS THE PRESENT NOW, WILL LATER BE PAST”
There is much to do on the “fan engagement” area. No team, for example, produces a match-day program with team line-ups, league standings, coach comments etc. It’s the kind of basic thing that supporters elsewhere in the world grew up with as a given. Even level 8 teams in the UK pyramid such as Welsh League Taffs Well – average home gate of 80 – produce a program every match as I witnessed when I went to a game in January this year.
If they can do it, surely it’s not too much to ask our top-flight professional clubs to make an effort! Updating club Facebook and twitter accounts on match day does not – in my book – count as enough “fan engagement”.
There is emerging clarity. The broadcast rights and marketing deal agreed between the FAM and MP & Silva was always shadowed in intrigue. It was mysterious how they suddenly emerged from the shadows after the last broadcast deal deadline passed? And how they arrived at the inflated RM 80,000,000 per year deal when all evidence, and subsequent problems hitting that mark, said that the league wasn’t worth that level of investment is another mystery.
After months of speculation, we are now aware – thanks to TMJ’s clear statement – that the deal is in the courts, and that those of us wary of the deal in the first place had every right to be suspicious. FAM might be exposed to over RM 30,000,000 loss from that seeming golden handshake.
“THE ORDER IS RAPIDLY FAILING”
And so it goes on. Clarity. Transparency. Straightforward dealing. Straight-talking. “Cutting through the crap.” There will be errors, and TMJ’s Royal standing is both a blessing and blight. A blessing because he will be able to push things through without fear of contradiction. But it’s also a blight – and for the same reason. In getting his way it may be because of who “He” is and not because those in agreement actually agree. Agreement because Sir says so is a short-term fix – particularly if Sir is only President for a one-term duration.
That is why the people TMJ surrounds himself with at the FAM are so important. Get the “right people on the bus” and empower them to make appropriate decisions – the way he seems to have done at Johor. Not necessarily people who agree with his vision – though that would help – but people who are good at what they do.
“THE FIRST ONE NOW, WILL LATER BE LAST”
The sidelining of Technical Director, Fritz Schmid, over the past couple of years is the clearest example of the kind of thing that has held back Malaysian football from developing as it should. Schmid came to the post with a stellar CV, but has been stopped by a combination of political interference and personal empire protection from implementing his proven and multifarious skills. He will leave the FAM soon as an under-utilized Technical Director who could have had such a big impact on Malaysian football – if he had been allowed to do his job.
Like Schmid, I am a foreigner who has enjoyed being welcomed into this wonderful country and is blown away by the atmosphere at the big sporting events. The potential for Malaysia to be a top Asian sporting nation is undoubted. But many of the foreigners who work in sport in Malaysia have expressed practical frustrations about what many of my Malaysian media colleagues refer to as “The Malaysian Way”.
People – particularly outsiders – recruited because they have a track record of success, simply aren’t given the space to impose new ideas on organisations no matter how successful methods and ideas have been in other countries. Adapt and compromise is the only way to work in Malaysia even if your very recruitment comes from using techniques the parallel opposite of those being utilized. I use Fritz Schmid, again, as an example.
Outsiders have to first learn, and then work through, the niceties and practicalities of operating in Malaysia. Invariably, this requires compromise, and dilutes the vision. Some can cope. Bojan Hodak, Steve Darby and Robert Alberts are three prime examples of people who learned how to effectively operate in South East Asia via compromise and skillful man-management in addition to their football IQ. Ashley Westwood wouldn’t compromise, and swiftly exited Penang.
My own interpretation and experience of – a term I must emphasize comes from the lips of my Malaysian colleagues – “The Malaysian Way” has been that:
- There is a target at hand, but…
- There are two, or more different camps looking to achieve, or alternatively, benefit from the target.
- Some of these camps may have perfectly altruistic ambitions, and genuinely want to achieve the target.
- Others have commercial or political non-target related reasons to have an interest. What follows is…
- A series of compromises is reached, whereby the respective camps each get some of what they wish, but this is…
- At the expense of the original target, which is then watered down.
The justification is that ‘everybody wins’. I interpret it that, at best, the target is only partially achieved or, at worst, forgotten about in the interests of ‘everybody wins’.
“THE SLOW ONE NOW, WILL LATER BE FAST”
‘The Malaysian Way’ – I hear my Malaysian colleagues say, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, on a regular basis. It is a civilised and non-confrontational way to operate and, largely, keeps the peace. But in terms of achieving the overall target the compromises seem, to this correspondent at least, self-defeating.
Ask World Cycling Champion Azizulhasni Awang if his coach John Beasley ever – EVER – compromised on his training sessions. Beasley was focused on setting in place the possibility for Azizulhasni to become World Keirin Champion. Azizul did the work, but if the facilities weren’t available; if the coach wasn’t ultra-demanding; if his diet was wrong; if ANYTHING was compromised, Azizulhasni would not now be World Champion.
A recent soundbite from Steven Gerrard also illustrates, wonderfully, how compromise simply doesn’t help you get to the top of sport.
His talk about being “obsessed with being the best in training every day” could well be the defining quote on how top athletes – and administrators – need to operate to truly succeed.