(Headline Photo Credit: Free Malaysia Today)
Years of long suffering in Malaysia football were recently alleviated when Johor Darul Ta’zim made history by becoming the first club to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Cup since the inauguration of the second-tier continental club tournament 11 years ago.
The strides they have made in their first season of Asian club action are the fruits of the visions and actions their royal patron, the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, has undertaken since taking over three years ago.
The young monarch’s relentless pursuit for reforms and progress has earned him admirers and brickbats alike. To his supporters, he is a breath of fresh air; to his enemies, he is a thorn in the flesh, a threat to the “comfortable” status quo in the scene.
Before Tunku Ismail Ignited Johor Football Revival…
It is not hard for his harsh critics to see it from this point of view because the path his club have undertaken have ruffled feathers and disrupted their comfort zones. After all, to them, money talks but no further than that. Not even thoughts of progress.
Before Tunku Ismail burst into the scene with the ownership and revamping of the present structure of football in his Johor state, moneybags (presently soon-to-be-paupers) Kelantan and Angkatan Tentera Malaysia utilised their benefactors’ political influence and splurged cash to attract the best local talents not affiliated to traditional power duo of Selangor and Pahang.
While dangling the high salary packages had allowed the wannabe clubs to attract talent and taste some success, neither showed the desire to aggressively push for betterment of the football in their respective structures.
This was also why the then-former club stalwarts in Safiq Rahim, Amri Yahyah and Junior Eldstal had no desire of leaving their former clubs because it would be a case of possibly more money, but more of the same old and less job security their new employers would offer.
What Tunku Ismail Did to Make Johor Shine Bright in Malaysia Club Football
When Tunku Ismail came into the scene in 2012 as the new president of the Johor Football Association, locals were wondering whether he would be of the same mould as Kelantan president Tan Sri Annuar Musa or Kedah president and Menteri Besar (Chief Minister in Bahasa Malaysia) Murkhiz Mahathir.
It turned out the larger-than-life prince had more than just the financial muscle and political muscle to ring in the changes and accelerate football development in the southern West Malaysian peninsula state. He used his royal clout to get corporations on board as sponsors.
More than that, he knew exactly what would bring the fans in and remain committed to the Johorean football cause. Besides signing the best local players (including Safiq, Amri and Eldstal) with super attractive salary packages, he also sold prospective employees his visions in turning the state into a local football powerhouse.
Throw in former European club football stars Pablo Aimar, Dani Guiza and Luciano Figueroa into the mix, and even the most seasoned regional football stars from both sides of the causeway are motivated to fight for the cause with the right tactical mix and discipline – as present head coach Roberto Mario Gomez has demonstrated since coming on board in May this year.
While the combination of these factors have seen the Southern Tigers win back-to-back Malaysia Super League titles, it is the club’s desire to test their waters in overseas competitions and strengthen the game at the grassroots level that has seen them set apart from the pretenders.
Targets Achieved, What’s Next for Johor & Malaysia Club Football?
Naysayers will lambast Tunku Ismail as a show-off, attention-seeker; supporters adore him for his boldness to confront and sail in unchartered territories. Whatever people’s opinions of him and the club are, what is undeniable is Johor Darul Ta’zim have shown the way forward.
Their AFC Cup semi-final opponents, defending champions Al Qadsia from Kuwait, are a massive step up from the likes of Balestier Khalsa, South China and Ayeyawady United, opponents they have faced in the campaign in the previous rounds. A surprise aggregate win will put them and Malaysia football on a positive spotlight in Asia, while elimination is simply an affirmation to continue their pursuit for improvement to attain a better standing and credibility in the wider Asian club scene.
Ultimately, beyond the megabucks and projects, Johor are showing ambition to up the level of excellence in the Malaysian club scene on their own terms. Only the level of desire of Tunku Ismail could determine how far the club will go in the domestic and continental club scenes and whether the sustained progress could force the dormant giants to wake up their ideas and do likewise.