Off the Cuff - Football – where are we heading to?

MALAYSIA, like other countries is ranked internationally on many fronts – from corruption perception index to popular tourist destination and ease of doing business.

We are improving on most counts but as a football playing nation, Malaysia is always on a banana skin situation, slipping and plunging way down the FIFA ranking.

The latest ranking released by the world football governing body puts Malaysia at 164th, the lowest ever in the history of the game which happens to be our oldest competitive sport.

This time around, we are ranked one rung below Bhutan, the Himalayan nation whose football we hardly hear about. And there were times despite our well-developed or structured football facilities like stadiums and leagues, we are ranked lower than conflict-torn Palestine.

Ironically, the latest ranking comes close on the heels of media reports on the sky-rocketing salaries of many players in the M-league who earn five and even six-figure pay, something unimaginable in the past decade or two when the ranking of our national team was much, much higher especially at the Asian level.

The New Straits Times reported that the astronomical salaries of Malaysian footballers continued to grow despite the national team's dismal FIFA ranking and performances.

Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) general secretary Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin even admitted that some players were being paid too much as they were only average players.

Football pundits worth their salt would certainly agree that the quality of most present day players, who command such big bucks and play professional football, is nowhere near that of the 70's and 80's when Malaysia was recognised as an Asian powerhouse.

Back then, players were paid a training allowance of only RM12 daily and had to find employment elsewhere.

What has gone wrong with our football for the ranking to be so embarrassingly low without any improvement in sight?

Some former international players say the national team's consistently poor performance boils down to the quality of players and the programmes done to improve its performance.

"If we are ranked so low, it reflects on the state of football in the country, from the national team right down to our development programmes. It is a development issue. The system needs to produce quality players and they need to be better managed when they play for the national team," said ex-international Shahril Arsat.

Another former international player, Asmawi Bakiri was more blunt in his criticism of the state of Malaysian football, saying "the system we have now and even most people running it are basically the same, if not with the same ideas we had 20 or more years ago, so it will never change."

These two ex-internationals make more sense than some of the comments and excuses we usually hear from the FAM over the years.

In any organisation, there are key performance indicators (KPI) and if such KPI isn't achieved then heads must roll and the necessary changes made.

But it seems that at FAM, it's always business as usual. And officials overstaying their welcome is second nature.

Former national centreback Lim Chan Yew said the decline in Malaysian football would continue and even worsen if FAM continued to avoid real issues.

"Look at what happened to the target of reaching the World Cup last year, which was set in 2001. Now we are targeting the 2022 World Cup when the reality is that we can't even qualify for the Asian Cup because we can't even match the best teams in this region," he said.

It also speaks volumes of the quality of players picked in FAM's talent-scouting and the absence of cross-fertilisation of talents especially the glaring lack of players among Malaysian Chinese.

Back in the 70's and 80's, some of the legends in Malaysian football were players like Soh Chin Aun, Chow Chee Keong, James Wong and Lim Teong Kim. Lim later even became assistant coach for Bayern Munich's under-19 team in Germany.

"Now in all the leagues you could count on your fingers the number of Chinese players. In my playing days, we came from the national school system where the schools had football fields. Now only a small number of Chinese go to such schools with most of them in Chinese schools where there're no football fields. They only have basketball courts, so how do we produce Chinese players?" he told me.

"If the low ranking is the issue, then FAM needs to find ways we can improve the ranking," he said.

The management of football in the country and hence the standard of the game also suffered when FAM over the years adopted a policy of being the only sports body in the country, perhaps in the world, too, that cannot be criticised.

Action such as a 30-month ban from football activity has been taken even against state FA presidents like Tan Sri Annuar Musa (Kelantan) and Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim (Perlis) for merely criticising FAM in 2013.

They are the icons who have made tremendous contributions to football in their states and taking such a drastic action on them is akin to killing the game.

What did these two presidents do to deserve such punishment? Annuar had criticised the poor performance of the national team while Shahidan was critical of FAM itself. He was also fined RM39,000.

So how does any sports body or any association for that matter, improve itself if it shuts itself out from criticism which in the first place was made for the sake of bringing improvements to the way things are being run.

Both these men must have been having a good laugh at seeing the latest FIFA ranking on Malaysia.

Millions are committed by corporate sponsors to the development of football in the country that enable players to take home such enviable salaries that even some of their CEOs don't earn but with our football down in the pits, ranking-wise, they might soon ask, is this sustainable?

The FAM must pull up its socks by adopting greater transparency and good governance before FIFA delivers more shocks in the future.