Malaysia slaps 5-year bans on five M-League clubs

The successful conclusion to Malaysia's end of season FA Cup and Malaysia Cup suggested that the "good times" were back for the domestic competitions of this football-mad, South East Asian country. "The fantastic fan support for the semi-finals and finals was beyond expectations,” said Football Association of Malaysia deputy president, Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, as quoted by Pritam Singh. "The atmosphere was electrifying. I have not seen such support for some years now. I am sure this is the beginning of better things to come,” he said.

Unfortunately, the party was to be quickly spoiled: five clubs – Selangor Public Bank, Selangor MK Land, Johor Linkedua, Ipoh City Hall and Selayang – announced their withdrawal from next season’s M-League kicking off in December. According to AFC Media, MK Land quit after their failure to gain promotion to the Super League in the last two years while Public Bank pulled out after being relegated from the Super League at the end of the current season.

The FAM board's response was firm and measured. It unanimously agreed to ban the five clubs from participating in all levels of football in the country until 2010 and added a RM 50,000 to the corporate-owned Public Bank and MK Land and RM 30,000 each to Johor Linkedua, Ipoh City Hall and Selayang.

“This is a warning to clubs who treat FAM as something they can trample on,” said FAM vice-president Datuk Raja Ahmad Zainuddin Raja Oma. “They cannot come in and go out as they please. They should have taken the trouble to inform us earlier, not when we are close to finalising next season’s fixtures. If the fixtures are messed up, FAM and not the clubs, will bear the brunt of criticisms,” he told a media conference.

He said FAM had tolerated more than 10 pullouts in the past, at the risk of jeopardising FAM’s calendar. “There have been those who had graced our competition but later pulled out owing to various reasons, such as Penang Port Corporation, Intel, NS Chempaka, Kelantan SKMK, Kedah Lada, Kelantan JKR, JPS, Kesura, Perak TKN and Perak Lintau. ”We opened the competition to clubs in good faith but we cannot be facing the risk of withdrawals all the time," he said.

According to observer Rizal Hashim, the pullout has "saddened FAM’s top brass, especially deputy president Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah and general secretary Datuk Seri Dr Ibrahim Saad, who have been strong advocates of club football. Long before the Super League was launched, Tengku Abdullah mooted the idea of Super Clubs but the concept didn’t take off."

Mr Shah has announced that FAM will consider proposals to "make the league not only more marketable but ultimately as a platform to produce a strong national squad". Former FAM vice-president Datuk Paduka Ahmad Basri Akil has said the Super League should not be restricted to just eight teams while the second-tier competition, currently called the Premier League, should be confined to semi-professional outfits.

Mr Basri argues that the present format of the Premier League being divided into two groups and the champions determined by a final play-off between the respective group winners was not a fair reflection of the true strength of a team: “There is always the possibility of a group winner not being able to finish among the top five if drawn in the other group. The Super League should also not be restricted to eight teams. It should be a competition of the best among the best.”

However, in an editorial, the Malay Mail observed that powerful State FAs continue to oppose the idea of a national league, a position seemingly in contradiction to the Asian Football Confederations's vision of professional football leagues. It suggested that to avoid disruption at the national level, the states be given a priority role at the local base:

"In the wake of the withdrawals, it is clear clubs or employer-based outfits, however strong their financial footing are, may not survive under the present scenario," the newspaper opined. "As of now, State FAs, it is clear, hold the key to our future. There is no doubt they enjoy political patronage and an avid following. Selangor command an average crowd of 40,000 this season, while Perak, Kedah, Penang, Terengganu, Perlis and Pahang have their own of faithful fans ... Since we cannot run away from the fact the State FAs remain relevant after all these years, FA of Malaysia must have the political will to impose certain conditions to rejuvenate the game at grassroots level. In order to ensure the States are not too consumed with the elite league, FAM must insist they organise at least one domestic State league and a schools league. Failure to meet this requirement will mean a cut in their annual grant."

On 28 September, the New Straits Times' Lazarus Rokk went "back to the future' to envisage a regional solution: "Have you ever wondered what the English Premier League would be like without Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal, or the World Cup without Brazil, Argentina, Germany, or Italy?" he asked. "That to me, is like getting into the whole drama of sex without a point of climax ... With Selangor back in business and in the mainstream of Malaysian football, there is just one ingredient missing in this powerful concoction that made the Malaysian league excitable, and lucrative to everyone including the bookies — the Singapore factor."

Singapore's national side stopped competing in the Malaysia Cup after a purge of 'match-fixers' in 1994. The Singapore Football Association then developed its own domestic S.League (featuring, at various times, guest sides from China, Japan and Australia) and cup.

"As much as our egos may not permit us to admit it, humility and harsh reality would dictate that they need each other, even if it may be for different reasons," Rokk commented. "The S-League is not the box office hit the FA of Singapore had hoped it would be after they cut the proverbial umbilical cord from their Malaysian counterparts. Sadly, the M-League turned out to be no different. The statistics at the gates for most of the teams have been anything but flattering. Most States have suffered from poor attendance ... and don't seem to have recovered.

"These excruciating circumstances have forced the FA of Malaysia and their Singapore counterparts to be in conference over the losses on both sides of the divide. And in the absence of strong local leagues and local heroes, the 'invasion' of the English Premier League claimed its victims. While Singapore don’t play their S-League matches on EPL days, the 'defiant' Malaysian League plays to near empty stadiums.

"I believe the time has come for both Malaysia and Singapore to join forces to compete with the EPL for the attention of their spectators. The Malaysia Cup, the favourite playground for Singapore, Selangor, and Pahang, would be that stage where we could return the magic and the charm to both Malaysian and Singapore football."

See also: Huge crowds fill stadium for Malaysian cup finals (2 Oct)