AFTER a three-week break, our professional football leagues resumed on March 7 with Premier League fixtures, followed by Super League matches the next day.
Being from Negri Sembilan, I once again found myself sitting alone in a corner of a very empty Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Seremban, hoping that my state team would grab a further three points in a bid for promotion to the Super League.
Negri were playing KL SPA FC, which are another of those queer clubs with very few supporters.
Anyway, I was delighted to see Jozef Kapláň of Slovakia, one of Negri’s four foreign players, in the starting line-up. He was partnering Jean-Emmanuel Effa Owona of Cameroon (who is the team’s top scorer so far) in a two-man strike force.
I had heard quite a lot about Kapláň before that day. In Negri’s first home match in this year’s Premier League, we got a 2-1 win against DRB-Hicom FC and Kapláň scored both goals. He is said to have put in a Man-of-the-Match performance. As I was unable to attend that match, I hoped for another chance to watch him play.
And so I attended Negri’s following home match, which was against Felda United on Feb 7, with high expectations of watching Kapláň play. However, despite Negri winning that tough match with a 2-1 result, I was disappointed that Kapláň remained on the bench.
In that match against Felda, however, it was another of Negri’s foreign players who caught my eye. Hardworking midfielder Kim Jin-ryong of South Korea was instrumental in Negri’s win that day. His endless energy and determination, combined with his composure and confidence, had heavily powered Negri’s midfield towards securing that difficult victory.
During that match, I could not help but wonder, what if these three of the four foreign players in Negri (Owona, Kapláň, and Kim), could play at the same time.
Negri would have, in my opinion, one of the strongest attacking lines in the entire league. I am personally sure all Negri fans would want to see what outcome could be produced from the trio's partnership.
However, fielding such a partnership would mean keeping centreback Jean Alexandre of Haiti on the bench.
FAM's rules stipulate that only three foreign players can be fielded at any one time in a match, despite teams being allowed to register four foreign players for the entire season.
Alexandre has easily won the hearts of the Negri faithful. His physical presence and unwavering bravery in defending the Negri goal has made him the “heart” of Negri’s defence. Not playing him, in my opinion, would be like not playing John Terry in the Chelsea FC defence.
Hence, having Owona, Kapláň, and Kim playing at the same time, however offensively attractive in may seem, puts Negri’s defence in a very risky state as it forces Alexandre to the bench.
And so, at the match between Negri and KL SPA FC, my joy of seeing Kapláň in the starting line-up was cut short with the knowledge that Kim was on the substitutes list. However, that would mean that Alexandre was playing, and that left me feeling assured. It would seem that V. Sundramoorthy, Negri’s coach, had felt that it was riskier not to play Alexandre, than one of the other three foreigners.
Kim did eventually feature, but only to replace Owona in what seemed like an injury-forced substitution. The match ended 0-0 despite Negri having better chances to score, and I went home frustrated, along with a head full of thoughts of the what-ifs.
I cannot help but question that ruling: Why should only three players be fielded at any one time in a match? Make no mistake, I do appreciate that we need to give more chances to our local players. But, it seems a lot of money is spent inefficiently.
Think about it: These foreign players are paid a monthly salary that is probably five figures. And they are paid to ... warm the bench?
Let us be a little bit more critical. There are 24 teams in both the Super League and the Premier League combined. Excluding Lions XII (who are not allowed to have foreign players), PBAPP FC (no foreign players), and UiTM FC (only two foreign players), we have 21 foreign players on every match day who will start as substitutes, with the possibility of not playing their respective matches at all. And yet, they are paid lucratively every month. If all those wages are added up, can we sense a big amount of money spent inefficiently here?
Increasing the foreign player quota from two players last year to three this year is something I applaud, and to have an additional slot for another foreign player who is from the AFC is an even better idea, as this “3+1” foreign player rule runs consistent with the AFC Cup and other AFC competitions such as the AFC Champions League. Such consistency, in my opinion, would let our teams prepare better for continental competitions.
However, why have the ruling where only three can be fielded at one time in our domestic matches? Would it make any real difference in terms of giving more exposure to our local players? If it does, I would personally prefer that we remain with the quota of only three foreign players per team, instead of four but only three can be fielded. That way, at least the mega deals for these foreign players would be efficiently spent, and our local players would have the exposure that is desired by FAM.
It is like Manchester United paying a jaw-dropping £300,000 per week for Wayne Rooney but keeping him on the bench on match days. It is just money badly spent!
Besides, as more exposure is given to the local professional leagues due to the coverage by Astro in recent years, it would be even more entertaining if all four foreign players can be fielded at the same time.
The football that could be played with all four might be of a higher standard and entertaining enough to draw more supporters to the stadium.
It might also engage a bigger television audience for the broadcasted matches, which would definitely put FAM in a better bargaining position, especially now that the national football body is closing in on a new broadcasting deal for our professional leagues.
So, I do urge FAM to consider changing the foreign player rule to allow teams to field all four foreign players for greater entertainment; or simply make it three foreign players so that the money is spent efficiently. Obviously the latter can only be implemented at the start of a new season, but the former can still be implemented immediately, as we are still in the early days of the football season.