Feud with JDT not one that FAM or Malaysian football can afford

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Of all the recent turmoil that’s engulfed Malaysian football the actions of the past week – where four national stars announced their apparently unilateral retirement via their club’s Facebook page – is perhaps the most unedifying spectacle yet.

Forget the flagging FIFA rankings, the allegations of match-fixing, the Abu Dhabi humiliation, the protracted search for a new national coach and the questionable Oceania jaunt, the decision of a quartet of players to quit the team four months out from the AFF Suzuki Cup is a hammer blow that the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) may struggle to recover from.

Whilst the fallout is continuing and the ramifications clear, there remains though a series of unanswered questions as to why and from where the sudden moves arose.

Certainly the ‘public statements’ of the players published on the Johor Darul Ta’zim website read as if they were crafted by some element within the team’s PR department and have the feel of someone proposing an idea that they don’t wholly agree with yet despite the shock of local football fans they appear moves unlikely to be rescinded.

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There are certainly more than a few hints though as to the likely source of the raft of well-timed moves and whether it was accrued frustration by JDT owner Tunku Sultan Ismail (TMJ) or a sudden epiphany from the players themselves is, in one sense, hardly the issue.

The real concern here is seemingly the complete breakdown of any kind of working relationship between the country’s leading club side, in many ways a de facto national team, and the national team itself.

On the one hand it’s easy to understand the concerns of JDT as anyone who has toured their state-of-the-art facilities could testify.

Their main training centre consists of several full-size and smaller scale pitches, an indoor facility is nearing completion and the gym, recovery and medical rooms are the envy of most clubs in East Asia.

To top it all off there will soon be a giant illumination spelling out ‘Welcome to Johor’ on the roof of the facility that will be able to be seen from Singapore; a final epistle that they are already the standard bearers for professional football in Southeast Asia.

JDT are also one of the few teams to employ an extensive staff of foreign experts from the front office right the way to the coaching team whilst the national team is still staffed mostly by employees with limited exposure to international best practice, specifically in the field of sports science.

That seems to be the real issue and it was one that was raised passionately by TMJ earlier this week when he claimed that his players had returned out of shape and injured from national team duty.

Just why the national team were bouncing around the Pacific playing nations vastly weaker than those they’ll face in the final qualification stages for the Asian Cup, indeed inferior to those in the upcoming AFF Suzuki Cup, is a question in and off itself but if the national staff is returning those players to their clubs in a worse condition than when they arrived then serious inquiry is warranted.

FAM have angrily denied claims that the players were injured but if this, as it appears is the case, was the crux of the dispute that led to the string of retirements then it’s an issue that surely was better resolved behind closed doors.

TMJ’s frustrations with the game’s governing body in Malaysia are well known and extensive – and by and large well-founded – though and there’s a real sense that whilst not kowtowing to the whims of one club, FAM should be doing everything it can to keep JDT onside.

The national coach, Ong Kim Swee, even admitted earlier this year that the club’s setup is the ‘best’ in the country and expressed a desire for the two parties to work ‘more closely’ after earlier criticism of some of the methods used by the national team, so the latest dispute is hardly a fresh issue.

It’s worth remembering too that exactly 58 days after the nadir of Malaysian football last year, the 10-0 loss to the UAE, came arguably it’s grandest achievement as JDT lifted the AFC Cup at Tajikistan’s Pamir Stadium, just around the corner from Dushanbe’s main zoo.

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It’s now a case of the animals running around wildly out of control and the national team can hardly afford to lose its captain as well as a trio of other players all of whom would have been involved in the Suzuki Cup campaign, the first major chance for Malaysia to restore its battered international reputation.

That Safiq Rahim, centre-back Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, full-back/winger S. Kunanlan and midfielder Amirul Hadi were leaned on seems clear to anyone with the vaguest understanding of events yet FAM must do everything in its power to try and repair the damage as soon as possible.

From the earliest stages of TMJ’s involvement in Malaysian club football, a move he was reluctant to make for several years, he’s set the standard for professionalism at all levels and it’s understandable that he expects the national body to not only share these values but also actually demonstrate that they do.

The counter-argument that a weakened national team leads to a weakened club scene doesn’t hold water in this case and the JDT boss should be applauded for his stance in trying to force the national body to embrace change and adopt a more professional approach at all levels.

The national team for its part can hardly afford to permanently alienate the nation’s leading club team and a probable source of the bulk of the Tigers’ squad for years to come and whatever the source of the conflict both parties must come together to try and solve what is now a serious impasse.

Just as political conflict is often resolved by an ‘external mediator’ so too may that be the ideal way forward here and FAM should be encouraged to bring in a senior figure in Asian football to try and repair the damage of the past week.

Someone who can set aside the inflamed passions that have engulfed the relationship between FAM and JDT and who can restore balance to all parties as they seek a structure for Malaysian football that can see an approach where both clubs and the governing body work together to harness the enormous footballing potential in the nation.

Scott McIntyre

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