28 January 2014. It was a typical night in Johor Bahru, where a Malaysian Super League clash between the rising force Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) and the defending champions Lions XII took place at Larkin Stadium.
In the 40th minute, the referee awards a free-kick to the home side. A certain JDT player, wearing the No.10 shirt, readies himself to take his kick. Despite the Lion's effort in building a strong wall, the ball eventually takes a nice curl around it and goes straight into the right-hand corner of the goal, out of the reach of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud.
The number ten is not some journeyman player trying to earn a living in an obscure country such as Malaysia. This player was once lauded by Diego Maradona as “the only player I’d pay to watch play.” This player is one Pablo Aimar.
The moment was not the Argentine’s introduction to Malaysia. Aimar was part of an Under 20 Argentina side which included the likes of Juan Román Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso and which walked away with the World Youth Championship in 1997. Indeed, Aimar would score against England in the very same stadium on the way to the final that year. Even then he was touted as one of the promising names for the 21st century before embarking on a successful career in Argentina, Spain and Portugal.
Though Aimar's career with JDT was short-lived, it had an enormous impact. It was not only the media back in Argentina which took interest in his progress: agents, footballers and coaches also began to realise the possibilities which a move to this exotic, little-known country in South East Asia.
In the past, it was imports from Eastern Europe, Australia, Brazil and Africa that mostly made their mark. We have since seen a small influx of Argentine footballers come to ply their trade in Malaysia, some making notable contributions where others failed to make an impact. This year alone, a record number of 12 players were registered at the start of the season from various teams playing the in the top two divisions.
Given that there are now better prospects of earning a living as a professional footballer in Malaysia, it is a number which will likely increase in time to come. Years before Aimar’s arrival, however, the journey from Argentina to Malaysian football was made by two other trailblazers whose success is not forgotten.
Malaysia is a country that consists of 14 different states. Each state has its own Football Association which runs its respective state’s teams; hence the sight of team names such as Selangor FA and Pahang FA.
For the most part of history, these were considered to be the premier teams in Malaysia, therefore they are the only ones that have the earned the rights to compete in the biggest competition in the country, the Malaysia Cup.
Below the radar, however, there were leagues and competitions which consisted of corporate-backed clubs that were operating on either a semi-pro or amateur basis. During the mid-nineties, these clubs were given the opportunity to compete in top flight competitions alongside State teams, a practice that continues until today.
Over the years, though, these clubs have not only maintained a reputation for being professionally managed, they have also started to make a noise on the field.
At a lower level, money wasn’t necessarily a problem as their parent companies looked after the budget. The major stumbling block was the lack of a proper fanbase since Malaysian football is deeply rooted in its state-based team culture. As such, long-term stability could be a challenge for these clubs if they were to compete on a higher level.
Once such club was Petaling Jaya Municipal Council Football Club, also known as Selangor MPPJ FC.
Nicknamed the Black Widows, MPPJ FC was formed in 1992. Throughout their first decade, they made heavy inroads into the top flight of Malaysian football as they were backed by the municipal council from one of the most diverse and richest districts in the state of Selangor. With a fast and steady improvement, they were promoted to the Malaysian Premier 2 League in 2002.
A top-four place in Premier 2 affords teams the chance to compete in the Malaysia Cup. MPPJ FC surprised everyone when they finished in 3rd place. In their debut Malaysia Cup debut; they went all the way to the quarter-final stage.
The rapid climb of this club has often been compared to the similar story of Wimbledon. These days, I’m sure the story of Brazilian side Chapecoense will come to mind.
Back then, the club had shrewd transfer policy. The bulk of the squad consisted of players that were rejected from established state teams, experienced players that were deemed too old or younger players that were not deemed good enough. It was a combination that proved to work well but there was still a gap which needed to be filled to lift the club to the next level.
In a bid to improve on their performance from 2002; the club made two important additions for the following year.
The first was appointing Dollah Salleh as their new head coach. Dollah is a legendary figure in Malaysian football and this was his first coaching attempt after having retired just three years earlier. Next up was the signing of two Argentine imports who would play a key role in Dollah's strategy.
The first was Juan Manuel Arostegui; a product of Boca Juniors youth system who played alongside Riquelme and Juan Sebastián Verón. After spending some time with clubs in the Argentine lower leagues, Arostegui arrived in Malaysia in early 2003. He was joined at MPPJ FC by fellow Córdoban Bruno Martelotto, who was already playing in Malaysia with Penang FA in 2002.
Dollah knew the strength of both players and how they could complement each other, thus quickly setting up to build a team around them. Martelotto was the playmaker while Arostegui was a typical centre forward who did most of the goal scoring.
In their first match against the Police team, MPPJ FC impressed with a 4-0 win, consisting of a hat-trick from Arostegui, with Martelotto providing the other. It was an early sign of what was to come from both players.
Arostegui was so deadly in front of goal that he ended up being the top scorer in Premier 2 with 33 goals from 22 league matches. Many of his goals were down to Martelotto’s pulling of the strings in midfield.
Despite the efforts of the Argentine duo, MPPJ suffered from inconsistency in the league, finishing fourth. Promotion was still possible, but they had to face Sarawak FA in a two-legged playoff to secure it. Despite MPPJ winning the first leg 3-2, Sarawak turns things around, winning the second leg 3-1 and a place in the Premier League the following year.
Finishing fourth in the league also meant that MPPJ FC did qualify for the Malaysia Cup. This was a perfect opportunity to make up for the disappointment of not gaining promotion to the Premier League.
In the first stage, they were grouped together with Sabah FA, Selangor FA and Penang FA; they did enough to finish in 2nd place with three wins, two draws and just one defeat (which came at the last game against Sabah FA).
To make matters even sweeter, they knocked out Selangor FA (the state team where MPPJ were based) at the group stage. From this moment on, a wind of change blew. Football fans living in the Petaling Jaya district slowly started to abandon the red & yellow of Selangor in favour of the more hip blue of MPPJ.
In the quarter-final, MPPJ were pitted against Pahang FA. The first leg away, both team settled for a goalless draw. With the second leg locked at 2-2, MPPJ FC were facing elimination as Pahang FA looked set to go through on away goal. However, in the dying minutes, Arostegui ensured that the Black Widows would go one step further than the previous year by making it to the semi-finals.
Awaiting them in the last four, were Perlis FA—at that point the hot favourites to win the trophy. MPPJ won the first leg 3-1 at home with both Arostegui and Martelotto scoring. In the return leg, MPPJ FC managed to hold on to a 1-1 draw, meaning a 4-2 aggregate win which meant that they would make history by facing Sabah FA in the Final of the Malaysia Cup.
The outcome of the match would be historic, whichever way it went. Sabah represented a state FA with a long footballing history; they were aiming to be the first East Malaysian team to win the trophy. Thousands of their loyal supporters took the three-hour flight from Borneo to Kuala Lumpur. Most of the 70,000 fans in the stadium were Sabahans.
The MPPJ fans were small in numbers but did enough to make their presence felt with many Argentine flags and shirts in evidence
Both sides were eager to get off to a good start but it was MPPJ who took the lead courtesy of a 13th-minute penalty from Arostegui, who else? The Black Widows were looking a dominant thereafter and it only got worse for Sabah when they were reduced to ten men in the 50th minute.
MPPJ and Arostegui continued with their dazzling performance. The Argentine—known to his adoring fans as El Santo—completed a hat-trick which lead his side to a resounding victory. He ended the year having scored 50 goals in all competitions.
For Dollah, this was his first triumph in Malaysian football as a coach after having many as a player.
The future looked bright for MPPJ FC but they were hit with a hammer blow when El Santo made it known that he wanted a move to a more competitive league. MPPJ knew with the existing state of Malaysian football it would be almost impossible to retain him and Arostegui eventually took up an offer to play for Mexican side Pachuca FC.
Martelotto, meanwhile, stayed on for a couple more years. He was instrumental in helping MPPJ to secure a place in the top flight when they clinched the rebranded Malaysia Premier League title (confusingly, the Premier 2 name was replaced by ‘Malaysian Premier League’ as the top flight took on the mantle of Malaysian Super League).
Despite gaining promotion to the Super League, MPPJ couldn’t hold on to coach Dollah Salleh. The following year he took on the coaching role at Selangor FA where he would have further success.
Dollah’s departure was the starting point of a steady decline for MPPJ. In order to strengthen their squad for their debut Super League season, the club took a different approach to their transfer policy, spending massively to attract big names. This lead to the media dubbing them as the “Chelsea of Malaysia”. (Rumours have it that the budget to prepare the team for the 2005 campaign was at around 10 million Ringgits—at the time, an astronomical figure by Malaysian football standards).
Adopting this strategy proved to a fatal decision for a club that was known to sign fringe talent, rather than established stars. The cracks began to show quite quickly when stories about non-payment of player's salaries and financial irregularities involving the municipality began to surface.
Martelotto was among those players who was affected by this. Having not been paid for months, he eventually had enough and decided to pack his bags and head home. This trend continued as other key players decided to leave the team one at a time.
Despite such troubled times, the club managed to hang around for a couple more years but by the time the 2007 season was about to kick start, with little or no funds available, MPPJ FC were unable to register a team and eventually folded. Now, MPPJ FC operates solely as a youth football side.
On leaving MPPJ, both Arostegui and Martelotto embarked upon separate journeyman careers but neither managed to recapture the magic of their time in Malaysia. They would, however, make a final attempt to do so.
Martelotto signed for the Armed Force team in 2012, a club side which was on the rise after being backed heavily by the Ministry of Defense. As with MPPJ FC, the Argentine helped his new team to earn a promotion to the Super League by clinching the Premier League title that year. He even came close of winning the Malaysia Cup again but his Armed Force team lost to Kelantan FA in the Final.
In a bid to bolster their squad for the 2014 Super League season, the Armed Force side made a surprise move to bring Arostegui back to Malaysia. The hope was that once reunited, both players would be able to revive the form which made them the deadliest combo in Malaysia. Alas, it was not to be—the best that they could do was to help their team to escape relegation.
As the season concluded, both players would once again go their separate ways. Despite the disappointing end to their time in Malaysia, the memory of an Argentine success story which they created still lingers.