Malaysia can rise again in football "in 10 years"

In November, Malaysian football nose-dived several rungs to 153rd spot on FIFA's world rankings. But there is still hope, at least according to World Sports Group President, Seamus O'Brien. In an interview with Jackson Sawatan of Bernama newsagency, the head of the company controlling marketing rights to the Asian Football Confederation made known his feelings that Malaysian football is salvageable, provided the condition is right.

"If you start now, in 10 years maybe you can have a respectable position ... there's absolutely no reason why Malaysia cannot be a very successful football team," he said. "Start 'em young. It's very hard to take a person who is already 16 and try to teach him how to play football. You've got to start teaching them when they are seven or eight years old, or at the time whey they first kick the ball," he said, adding that "the coach has got to be as good for an eight year old as he is for a 20 year old."

O'Brien cited Japan as an example of how a country can be successful in football development. He said that the country had invested a lot of efforts, time and resources to produce "a whole army" of good coaches and send them to schools to teach football to the young. "If you use the example of Japan, South Korea and even Australia, and you analyse how they've achieved (success) -- and what they have taken to achieve this -- it's significant. And it's not just about just going out and acquiring a good coach or building a decent stadium. You have to move the whole mechanism that is producing talents in football... and Japan has got hundreds of soccer coaches that are in the school system, making sure that those eight, 10, 15 or 16 year olds in the school system come into a professional environment with the skills and technique of the game correct, as good as they can be. That works for Japan. They started soon after the 1992 Asian Cup and launched the J-League the year after. That was when they put in serious commitment at all levels," he said.

To O'Brien, it's not a question of the lack of talents. "If you believe that everybody is born equal, then it's not a question of talents. It's all about what happens after that. And as countries have proven, everybody can play football. The talent base is equal," he added. "The overriding issue is where the talent pool must come ... you've got to think where do I want the M-League to go in 2015 and fix the process to get there.".

However he noted that there are some "fundamental issues" in the structuring of Malaysia's professional league, particulalry the apparent "disconnect" in the transition from states-based football to club-based football. "You've got a highly successful football league model based on states. Football is a place-based sports. The supporters and the fans come from place-based rivalries ... its tribalism. Football is often referred to as a very tribal sport. M-League as a state-based team is widely successful. In the 80s and 90s you have massive crowd. What happens is (the introduction of) football clubs (which does not represent a place or a state). There clearly is a disconnect in that process, to the point where the fans actually become dissociated rather than feeling an enhanced attachment to the clubs," he said.

In places like Japan, the teams used to be based on companies but the country had since moved into place-based or city-based clubs. "South Korea has not yet successfully made that full transition which is why the anomaly that the national team is successful but the football club isn't, because the teams aren't associated with cities," he said. But South Korea can afford that kind of anomaly and emerged as a football giant in Asia because it had a very good coaching system, he added.