FROM March 28 until April 18, 2014, the team I support, Negri Sembilan, went on a five-match winning streak in the Premier League. Our South Korean import Kim Jin-ryong scored in all those matches. Our stadium was filled up with numbers not seen in a long time. The team were on a great winning momentum.
And then came a three-week break, and we lost our next match to Felda United, and our subsequent match to Sabah in Seremban, with the stadium back to its more-than-half-empty state.
It made me question what the three-week break was for.
No renowned football league in the world has regular two to three week breaks here and there throughout its entire season. In contrast, our football leagues will occasionally take breaks that are curiously two to three weeks long, thus breaking any momentum teams have established, and also the momentum of fan participation; all that so that our players can have regular breaks and rests.
This is very different to the renowned leagues in the world. We all know that the EPL runs into a very packed schedule during Christmas; and even the Australian A-league plays through Christmas in the usual one match per weekend schedule without any breaks for the players. Even the German Bundesliga, though their season consists of a one-month break during Christmas, has only that one break in their entire season.
In Malaysia, not only are some festivities our “off-season”, but we also have these occasional two to three week breaks throughout the football season, which is only six months long.
I’m not saying that our players do not need breaks, but too many of them may create a sense of complacency, as they get used to having lots of breaks. This can be a stumbling block to our players who want to move abroad as they are not used to the hectic schedule in other football leagues.
As Malaysian football fans, one of the usual criticisms that we have for our players is that they have the wrong “mentality”.
In my opinion, it is probably just the manner of employment of the professional players.
We should all know that most of our professional football teams are indirectly owned by the government. This means that most of our professional players are indirectly civil servants.
This may be advantageous or otherwise, depending on the current football landscape of a country.
In the 1980s when Malaysia was still relatively new as a football nation, it made sense. In order for football players to have constant and secure employment as professional football players, and also constant competition, FAM (Football Association of Malaysia) created the professional football leagues and got the state FAs to send out state-representing teams to compete, which gave these players employment opportunities.
By being employed indirectly by the government, football players did not have to worry about their wages.
However, times have changed and what started out as a good idea may be destructive now. Football players nowadays are arguably too protected. Being indirectly employed by the government, there may be a lack of “performance culture”, which leads to complacency.
Simply put, “performance culture” means hard work and effort will not be rewarded; the results are rewarded.
This may sound a bit extreme. Such an extreme culture will no doubt be too brutal or unfriendly for our football players. However, a lack of the “performance culture” can be very damaging as well.
Arguably, that is what is sorely lacking in the entire professional football set-up in our country. Our football players are too complacent, because the government is too protective. The mentioned long breaks are a good sign of the over-protectiveness of our government towards the professional players.
It makes our players soft, especially when moving abroad or playing against teams from other countries.
The only way to solve this problem, in my opinion, is to get the private sector to invest and commit to the professional football set-up, both the leagues and the teams. When there is investment and involvement, the private sector will demand what private companies demand: branding and profit.
To make it sound less cynical, the example below may help:
Imagine, car company XYZ has invested in PKNS FC and renamed it XYZ FC. To make full use of its investment, the company would want the team to rise to the pinnacle of Malaysian football, and be able to achieve success consistently. Being associated with a winning team reflects the brand XYZ well to consumers, and thus may boost its sales and goodwill.
To achieve that, it will need players who can bring success, and it will not waste money on those whom it thinks will not. The players will be trained even more, and have fewer breaks, so that they can become better, and be fit all the time. If not, their performance might drop, which might affect the team’s performance, and ultimately affect the branding aspect of XYZ.
In the example above, employed players who do not show 100% commitment will be criticised and warned, then fined, then wages cut, and finally might get their contracts terminated. Players will understand that they are no longer protected as before, and they need to earn every sen by giving 100% in training and matches.
Apart from that, in order to have good players, the private sector might even do their own scouting and have their own youth set-ups to produce good players, which of course will ultimately give their team a better chance to be consistently successful, and thus deliver better branding and profit for the company. This, of course, will help the grassroots football in our country.
In short, this increases professionalism and the mental strength of our players, which can only positively affect Malaysian football.