RIGHT IDEAS, WRONG TEAM

Tengku Ab­dul­lah Sul­tan Ah­mad Shah will end his as­so­ci­a­tion with the FA of Malaysia on Satur­day and, as finds out in re­view­ing his bit­ter­sweet jour­ney, he can leave with his head held high

New Straits Times - - Sport -

THEY say tim­ing is ev­ery­thing. That, there’s a time to step up to the chal­lenge, a time to pro­long the fight, and a time to fold up and walk away.

The past — both the dis­tant and the not too dis­tant — has re­vealed that Tengku Ab­dul­lah Sul­tan Ah­mad Shah couldn’t have picked a more wicked time in Malaysian foot­ball to oc­cupy its most un­invit­ing and ma­ligned po­si­tion. That, of pres­i­dent of the FA of Malaysia (FAM).

He knew it, and so did a host of oth­ers who have been ag­o­nis­ingly watch­ing the free fall of Malaysian foot­ball to its present state of de­spon­dency.

But Tengku Ab­dul­lah stepped up to the chal­lenge be­cause he believed he was the change agent that Malaysian foot­ball needed. He had the will, and an 11-point man­i­festo, which he tried to put in place, to be­gin sal­vage op­er­a­tions.

In that man­i­festo — that was to have cat­e­gor­i­cally and pro­gres­sively trans­formed the bat­tered face of Malaysian foot­ball were — FAM gov­er­nance, pri­vati­sa­tion of the Malaysian Su­per League, stake­holder en­gage­ment, tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ment, im­prov­ing Fifa rank­ing, build­ing a com­pe­ti­tion pyra­mid, en­hanc­ing fi­nan­cial distribution, pro­tect­ing foot­ball from book­ies, ref­er­ees de­vel­op­ment, form­ing an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­cial body, and even a KPI (key per­for­mance in­dex) for the pres­i­dent.

His first task as pres­i­dent, when he took over af­ter beat­ing Darul Ta’zim owner Tunku Is­mail Sul­tan Ibrahim in May 2014, was gov­er­nance. To this ef­fect, al­most im­me­di­ately, Tengku Ab­dul­lah sought the as­sis­tance of Fifa to help re­struc­ture FAM’s frail ad­min­is­tra­tive ma­chin­ery.

Re­spond­ing to the call, a team of Fifa ex­perts spent months in Wisma FAM, putting to­gether a mod­ule that would work for the Malaysian foot­ball cli­mate.

But as it turned out, and true to their pedes­trian form, the ‘war­lords’ in FAM — while dis­play­ing the fa­mous Malaysian hos­pi­tal­ity to their Fifa guests — sadly re­tained the medi­ocre sys­tem of gov­er­nance that not only al­lowed them to cling on to their jobs, but also one that didn’t chal­lenge their fee­ble minds.

That was the first body blow for his care­fully-thought of plan for re­demp­tion. And while he was still re­cov­er­ing from that dis­ap­point­ment, the Dol­lah Salleh-led na­tional team’s hu­mil­i­at­ing 10-0 de­feat to the United Arab Emi­rates in Septem­ber 2015, turned out to have more dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects.

Political and sports lead­ers were quick to as­sign blame, and it landed squarely on the shoul­ders of Tengku Ab­dul­lah.

There were even threats of political in­ter­ven­tion against the body and calls for res­ig­na­tion echoed from par­ties who them­selves are quick to crit­i­cise but slow to change. Never mind, if th­ese ‘con­cerned’ par­ties were to­tally clue­less about Fifa’s statute on gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence.

But the sus­pi­cion is that, th­ese threats and calls that were un­fair, un­war­ranted and un­qual­i­fied, was the prover­bial salt on the open wound that im­pelled Tengku Ab­dul­lah to pre­ma­turely an­nounce his res­ig­na­tion. One that he said later was to make way for new blood to take foot­ball to greater heights.

And the sad part of it all was, he took the fall for the blun­der made by the in­ward-think­ing mem­bers of his exco.

The exco, who prob­a­bly thought they were do­ing the pa­tri­otic thing, voted for chief coach Dol­lah.

Tengku Ab­dul­lah, who wasn’t keen on the Malaysian, of­fered the op­tion of choos­ing from two Ger­man coaches. Even if the Ger­mans were not suc­cess­ful in the end, at least the blame would have been jus­ti­fi­ably placed with the pres­i­dent. But he was made to fall on a sword that was not of his do­ing.

What was even sad­der was that — not one mem­ber of the exco — nei­ther as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the blun­der, nor de­fended their pres­i­dent who had no part in that mind­less de­ci­sion.

The mem­bers of his exco just stood by and watched their pres­i­dent be­ing ma­ligned by all and sundry.

In­cred­i­bly, th­ese crit­ics are the same ones who have lit­tle or no ex­pe­ri­ence in manag­ing a na­tional body. As the say­ing goes, ‘Don’t judge a man un­til you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’.

But naivete, real or oth­er­wise, should not give way to ig­no­rance. The truth of Malaysian foot­ball pol­i­tics — it’s the war­lords of the State FAs and a cou­ple in FAM, who are the ones re­ally in power.

Tengku Ab­dul­lah’s folly, and that of his pre­de­ces­sor, Sul­tan Ah­mad Shah, was al­low­ing them to fester, and ap­ply a throt­tle­hold on the gov­er­nance of Malaysian foot­ball.

Dic­ta­tor­ship, was what could have ended this peren­nial malaise. But nei­ther Sul­tan Ah­mad, nor Tengku Ab­dul­lah sub­scribed to that phi­los­o­phy of gov­er­nance.

And as th­ese state and club lead­ers re­mained com­mand­ing in their king­doms, to­tally ne­glect­ing their sole re­spon­si­bil­ity of run­ning leagues, de­vel­op­ing foot­ball, and pro­duc­ing a broad base of world class play­ers, the FAM pres­i­dents have had to take the fall for the fail­ures of the na­tional team.

But Tengku Ab­dul­lah, whose dream was to see Malaysia in the Fifa World Cup fi­nals dur­ing his ten­ure, can walk away know­ing that he had left some sig­nif­i­cant im­prints in the evo­lu­tion of Malaysian foot­ball.

And Tengku Ab­dul­lah, a Fifa exco mem­ber, might yet have a hand in Malaysia’s in­duc­tion into the World Cup, by be­ing part of Fifa’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing body that de­cided on a 48-team tour­na­ment af­ter 2022.

Asia is fight­ing for seven places, open­ing the path wider for Malaysia’s en­try.

Through his in­volve­ment with Fifa and the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion, Malaysia were pre­sented with bet­ter de­vel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, by way of fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.

As a re­formist, he led the evo­lu­tion of Malaysian foot­ball from its am­a­teur sta­tus to what it is now, be­ing fully pro­fes­sional. The first baby step be­gan in 1989 with the in­cep­tion of the semipro league, grad­u­ally eas­ing into a full pro­fes­sional league in 1994.

But well be­fore the in­cep­tion of the semi-pro league, Tengku Ab­dul­lah — who was well ahead of his time — had in 1982 be­came the first of­fi­cial to sign on for­eign play­ers, namely Sin­ga­pore­ans T.Path­manathan, and R.Suri­amoor­thy, for Pa­hang. Then came the Thais, Piyapong Pueon, Ron­nachai Say­om­chai, and Vi­toon Ki­j­mongkol­sak.

And with for­eign play­ers from other parts of the world con­verg­ing on the Malaysian League soon af­ter that, the com­plex­ion of the M-League changed, in more ways than one.

It was a bold move to pro­fes­sion­alise Malaysian foot­ball be­cause the struc­ture it was built on, was am­a­teur at best. The stan­dard of the game, the mind­sets, and the ad­min­is­tra­tors were any­thing but pro­fes­sional.

But the adamant Tengku Ab­dul­lah pushed his agenda through, and he was vindi­cated as the M-League be­came the most pop­u­lar in the re­gion and among the bet­ter-run leagues in Asia.

Un­for­tu­nately its pop­u­lar­ity was also its bane, as book­ies swarmed into the league, mak­ing a killing from il­le­gal bet­ting and match-fix­ing.

Forced by the ugly cir­cum­stances to be cruel to be kind, Tengku Ab­dul­lah led the cru­sade against foot­ball bribery that saw the ban­ish­ment of more than 100 play­ers and of­fi­cials in 1994.

If he was left to his own de­vices, there would have been a lot more that Tengku Ab­dul­lah could have achieved for Malaysian foot­ball. But medi­ocrity in the foot­ball ranks, and a bungling na­tional team stood in his way.

And it was time for him to fold up, and move on.

Tengku Ab­dul­lah Sul­tan Ah­mad Shah be­came FAM pres­i­dent af­ter beat­ing Darul Ta’zim owner Tunku Is­mail Sul­tan Ibrahim in May 2014.

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