On the eve of the new Malaysian Super League season, investments in English clubs and an obsession with European football means the domestic game is in crisis.
“Malaysians are all the time eating,” grinned my taxi driver as he mimicked munching his hand. “All day, all evening, even at night when we are watching football on TV. Always eating.”
The exasperated cabbie was explaining why obesity is a growing concern in this Southeast Asian nation of 28 million people. Instead, he nailed Malaysia’s two driving passions: football and food. The tri-ethnic base has resulted in a delicious fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malay dishes. As for the beautiful game, the televised options are so numerous it is easy to eat, drink and sleep football.
Ever since Liverpool’s Managing Director, Ian Ayre, made his infamous comments in October about the distribution of Premier League media, Malaysia has become a leitmotif for tapping into Asia’s football consumer markets.
“If you are a Bolton Wanderers fan in Bolton you subscribe to Sky because you want to watch Bolton,” Ayre said. “But if you are in Kuala Lumpur, there isn’t really anyone subscribing to Astro or ESPN to watch Bolton. The large majority are subscribing because they want to watch Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal.” The UK media has since adopted the phrase “what the football fan in KL wants” – both as a parody of Ayre’s narrowly focused analysis, and to emphasize the growing importance of monetizing fanatical support across Asia Pacific.
Ayre’s comments were rooted in Liverpool’s first trip to Malaysia in July. Even though the club had – through its sponsor, Standard Chartered, an established banking brand across Asia – carefully managed its three-nation Asian tour to China, Malaysia and Singapore, it was surprised at the depth of support and knowledge of the English game in KL.
In a highly entertaining pre-season friendly Liverpool defeated the Malaysian national team 6-3 in front of 80,000 fans at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium. After 82 minutes, however, the match was poised at 4-3, following two goals in three minutes by star striker Safee Sali – who recently had a trial at Cardiff. A couple of days previously, 38,000 fans watched a Liverpool training session, while hundreds more flocked to promotional appearances by players at KL’s largest shopping malls.
Liverpool arrived in KL on the heels of Arsenal, who started their 2011-12 pre-season Asia tour with a 4-0 victory over the Malaysian national side. The following week a controversial Didier Drogba goal enabled Chelsea to scrape a 1-0 win over the country’s under-23 team. Three top Barclays Premier League (referred to universally in Malaysia by the acronym ‘BPL’) teams playing within two weeks showed how seriously football’s elite is taking this previously off-radar South East Asian nation.
Malaysia’s interest in English football can be divided into two segments – fans who love to watch it, and investors who want a part of the action. Malaysia’s growing influence in global economic markets ranges from its pension funds buying premium London real estate to leading businessmen investing in English football clubs.
In August 2011, Tony Fernandes, the founder of perhaps Malaysia’s most internationally known brand, low-cost airline Air Asia, purchased a controlling stake in QPR from Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore. Previously, Air Asia had sponsored Premier League referees and assistant referees, but this deal was switched to another Fernandes-founded brand, the Tune entertainment group. Air Asia and the national carrier, Malaysia Airlines (with which Fernandes and Air Asia agreed a complex share swap deal earlier in 2011), now alternate as QPR’s shirt sponsor for home and away matches.
Two other Premier League teams boast prominent Malaysia connections. Aston Villa bear the name of Genting casinos on their match shirts, while Manchester United has a strong marketing presence in Malaysia. Its own-branded Visa card is ubiquitously promoted by Maybank, and Mr Potato crisps is now the club’s “global snack partner”. A local TV ad features Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung munching cans of crisps while wearing their first-team strip.
In the Championship, Cardiff City is pushing for promotion to the Premier League on the back of a multi-million pound investment by a Malaysian consortium headed by Chairman, Dato Chan Tien Ghee. The club recently gave a two-week trial to Malaysian international striker Safee Sali, who plays for Pelita Jaya in the Indonesian league, and has teamed up with Felda, the largest landowners in Malaysia, to invest in grass roots football academies nationwide.
Football fans in Malaysia are served up plenty of televised football on which to gorge. Each weekend, Astro satellite TV subscribers can watch up to eight live Premier League matches, supplied by ESPN and Star Sports channels based in Singapore and the Astro Super Sport channel based in KL. Regular pundits include ex-England players Steve McMahon, Peter Barnes and Paul Parker. Tony Cottee and John Barnes have been recent guest analysts.
In addition, weekly live matches are broadcast from Spain, Italy and Germany, plus frequent live club football from Brazil, France and the United States. Every match of the 2011 Copa America was broadcast, as was the FIFA World Club Cup. Live Champions League and Europa Cup matches are shown weekly, and countless international qualifying games and friendlies are broadcast. All this football content comes for a monthly subscription of RM79.45 (GBP16), or slightly more for HD transmission.
The ubiquity of televised European football explains the myriad Manchester Utd, Liverpool and Barcelona shirts worn by young fans around KL. So, too, does the paucity of the Malaysian game. Domestic football still lives under the shadow of a 1994 corruption scandal that resulted in 21 players and coaches being fired, and numerous others implicated. Today, Malaysian football remains plagued by rumours of bribes and matchfixing.
The new 26-match Super League season begins on 10 January, and in an attempt to raise standards the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) also lifted a three-year ban on the recruitment of foreign players. Each team can now engage two foreign players, but low budgets and low-grade football mean that a Shanghai-style Nicolas Anelka transfer coup is impossible.
The format for the 2012 Super League season remains the same, with 14 teams competing. Numerous problems exist, however, not least the fact that only four stadiums, Bukit Jalil (KL), Darul Aman (Kedah), Utama Kangar (Perlis) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) meet the minimum lighting standard for hosting night matches.
Controversy also surfaced on 14 December, the day the 2012 fixtures were published. An agreement between the FAM and the Football Association of Singapore will see a Singapore Lions XI play in the Malaysian Super League, while the Malaysian under-23 side will play in Singapore. However, because Singapore's domestic league, the S-League, has no relegation and promotion the FAM agreed that the Lions team similarly cannot be relegated from the Malaysian Super League until at least 2015, even if it finishes a season in the bottom two.
Regional competition offers no respite from the domestic mediocrity. No Malaysian club was among the 32 teams to compete for the 2011 Asian Champions League, won by Qatar’s Al Sadd. The current Malaysia Super League winners Kelantan and FA Cup winners Terengganu will compete in the 2012 AFC Cup, Asia’s second tier regional club competition, but expectations are minimal at best.
Little hope exists for national team success, either. Malaysia is currently 155th on the FIFA rankings, below Malta, Bahamas, Cuba, Gambia, Ethiopia and Suriname. On a brighter note, it did win the 2010 Suzuki Cup, a biennial tournament for South East Asian nations, defeating arch-rival Indonesia 4-2 over two legs to take the trophy for the first time. Malaysia once again beat Indonesia, this time on penalties, to retain the South East Asian Games title in November 2011.
Beyond localized competitions, the national team has been woeful. It failed to qualify for the 16-team 2011 AFC Asian Cup held in Qatar, which was won by Japan, and was eliminated by peninsular rival Singapore from the 2014 World Cup pre-qualifying campaign. After the first three matches of the 2012 Olympic qualifying stage, Malaysia sits pointless at the bottom of a group including Bahrain, Japan and Syria, and was trounced 5-0 by Australia in an international friendly in October.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for national coach K Rajagopal, who has stated that the team must now seek to build for the 2015 AFC Asia Cup, to be hosted by Australia. Malaysia last played in the Asian Cup in 2007, when it co-hosted the tournament but failed to go beyond the group stage.
Little wonder then, that in a nation that priorities football and food above all else, the staple TV dish for football fans is imported from Europe.