One fact remains. Die-hard fans of Malaysian football believe that Tunku Mahkota Johor (TMJ) Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim is the saviour who can turn around the sad state of affairs of the game in the country.
Malaysians have waited long enough for a transformation, but nothing has changed since the glory days when the national team last qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The last couple of years has seen the game hitting an all-time low, with the national team twice going into the history books for the wrong reasons.
First, the humiliating 10-0 beating at the hands of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during the 2018 World Cup Asian qualifying campaign in Abu Dhabi September last year – Malaysia’s worst loss in 50 years.
Then, a couple of months back, Malaysia’s ranking dropped to world No. 174 – the lowest in our football history and just 30 places away from rock bottom.
Some feel that the success of his club Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) – winning six titles in three years – is a clear testament of his credibility.
Last year, JDT made heads turn by becoming the first Malaysian team to win the AFC Cup.
The Southern Tigers are growing stronger and the TMJ’s ambition is for JDT to be a top team in every single aspect ... quality football, good philosophy of football, development of players, good marketing team and the best facilities in the country.
This year, JDT have already snapped up the Charity Shield and the FA Cup. They are on course for the AFC Cup after qualifying for the quarter-finals and are strong contenders to win a record third straight Super League title (leading the 12-team standings).
So, is the TMJ up for the job to save Malaysian football?
“I do not know whether I’m interested or not. But I don’t want to lie. I am very straight forward ... I am the best guy in the business right now. I am the only guy who can turn things around. I know what I want. I have a target, I have a plan. Ask him ... whether he has a plan or not. He can’t answer you,” came the TMJ’s reply.
“That’s why I tell the press to ask me any questions. You can ask anything ... where I get my money from, where I’m keeping the money, what I’ve done with it. I got nothing to hide.
“If you say that I, who have taken Johor football within three years to come up with the best facility, best pitch in the country, with the financial resources, quality players, good philosophy, achievements domestically and internationally, am killing Malaysian football? Then I got nothing to say.
“Which means you have completely forgiven what had been done for the last 30 years ... and you blame a scapegoat. My achievements speak louder than words. So how can you say Tunku Mahkota is killing Malaysian football?
“If this is what you call killing Malaysian football, then ... I‘m going to continue killing it, seriously.”
Since the TMJ has declared that he is the best man to clean up Malaysian football, then why not go for it?
“I don’t want to. I belong here. This is where I belong. People here love me. I want to be where I am loved. I’m like Jose Mourino here ... I am the ‘Special One’ here. This is what I want to be,” he said.
“But I’m never ‘sombong’ (arrogant) or selfish when it comes to sharing opinions. Look where the national team are training today (for the 2019 Asian Cup playoffs). Am I doing it for myself? They are training here at the best training facilities ... they are staying in a good hotel, playing in the best stadium. Am I only helping Johor football?”
WRONG PEOPLE IN POWER
But why, despite Malaysian football having turned professional more than 20 years ago, local football is still heading nowhere?
“Do the right thing. We have to accept ideas. End of the day, it all boils down to interest ... to go to the next level or just be there for the sake of carrying out your duty. Ranking is very important, but we first have to fix in-house before we can be thinking of playing internationally,” he explained.
“I think it’s still very poor in the associations’ side in the upper level because you have exco members who have no clue about football. You have to fix it from the top ... all the way down to the bottom.
“If I were FAM, I’d probably send the national coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee to Germany for a couple of years. Learn as much as possible and come back and take over the team.
“Knowledge has no barrier, no limit. If we are willing to learn, set new targets, I believe that we can somehow improve the national ranking.”
Tunku Ismail also feels that a major stumbling block hindering the growth of the sport is education – or the lack of it.
“Education in this country has to change first. It is about upbringing. If we have a professionally-run academy that implements professionalism, then you will have a different product. We have not had the foundation and suddenly you want to send the boys abroad,” he said.
“If you put a Malaysian player and a Singapore player side by side and ask them the same question ... you will get different answers. Totally different mind sets. That is why I say education plays a part. It is all about upbringing. The way of thinking is different ... to be intelligent.
“If I have to ask a Singapore player what is your dream? He will answer that it would be to one day excel in Europe, play with the big clubs. But the Malaysian boy will say ‘to win the Malaysia Cup’.
“Why is that? Education!
“You fix the education, you get a good academy, you have the right teacher, you have the right coaches ... you have a different material. I guarantee you. And that will come from here (Johor). I will do it. I give you my word ... I will do it.”
TALENTS WITH NO DREAM
Tunku Ismail said that Malaysia “is blessed with talented and quality players in abundance but sadly they are unable to change their mind sets”.
“We have ... but limited. Back to the academy and back to the upbringing. The amount of talent this country has is amazing. The amount of quality ... but that goes up to here (certain level). Why? This (pointing to his head) will take you to the next level.
“They are contented with a couple of Super League titles. Why? They are not hungry ... because they were never brought up to dream to go to the moon. They think they are limited.
“If I want to achieve something, I will go as far as I can. If I don’t get it, I won’t feel disappointed because 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing. That’s how I will take it.”
CANNOT BE IN DENIAL
One of the reasons why JDT have progressed is, according to Tunku Ismail, “because we are willing to learn”.
Tunku Ismail said that there’s no shame in learning from the masters.
“We are bringing expertise from Valencia. We cannot be in denial ... you cannot sit here and say you know everything about football. We don’t know. If we feel lacking in something ... learn. The first step is put our ego aside,” he said.
“What happened here in JDT? I learn, I see, I ask questions, I accept criticisms, I accept people giving me advice. Then, I will pick what is the best solution that is right for the club. People ask why JDT have lot of foreign coaches right from our youth level. I answer them ... they know better than us. They come from a football world that exists for 150 years before us. We should learn from them.”
Tunku Ismail stressed that the reason the game has stagnated is due to the affiliates, who are “the biggest problem leading the game to rot in the country”.
“The problem is not FAM. My biggest challenge is with the affiliates. All the affiliates don’t want to sit at one table. Don’t blame FAM for the decline of football. They are just an association,” he clarified.
“Football belongs to the affiliates, but they all continue to sleep, don’t want to talk, everyone wants to mind his own business ... then football will never improve.
“The only one who can improve football is not FAM ... it is the affiliates. They can call for an AGM any time ... they can make the decision, but they never do ... they keep quiet. TMJ is the only one ‘bising’ (making noise) ... where are the others?
“Only one or two teams are going in the right direction. Felda United and Penang.
“Penang have made a good decision in picking Bojan Hodak to transform the game there. Why he is the perfect choice? ... he is not a politician.
“We all know the problems faced by the country today, but all decide to keep quiet. So, how to improve?
“It’s about your willingness and dedication. The power is in the affiliates. You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!”