JOHOR BARU: LOCAL football fans were in jubilant spirits when Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim was named the sixth president of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), winning the post uncontested after the other contender Tan Sri Annuar Musa pulled out of the race at the eleventh hour.
His ascension the top position in FAM was well received by local football fans because of what the Tunku Mahkota Johor, or popularly known as TMJ, had achieved with the Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) football team.
The JDT, from its early start as a small team rode on its huge ambition to become a giant in Malaysian football.
Tunku Ismail first connection with local football can be traced back to 2012, when he used Twitter to announce that he would be taking over as president of the Johor Football Association.
His tweet was reported by The Star but scepticism followed as football in Johor was in the doldrums with the two state teams, Johor FC and Johor FA, fighting to avoid relegation during that period.
Tunku Ismail, a keen polo player and a disciplinarian from his military training at the renowned Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, India from 2003, literally took up the challenge to clean up Johor FA.
He removed several players and officials and focused on reviving the state football teams by getting the best local players from rival clubs.
Eyebrows were raised when Tunku Ismail tweeted that former Argentinian striker Gabriel Batistuta would be roped in to help Johor FA. He even made a bid to sign former Barcelona playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme.
Tunku Ismail also did a masterstroke by signing former Spanish international and European Championship winner Daniel Guiza and Lazio midfielder Simone Del Nero to play for the rebranded JDT back in 2013.
While success was not immediate, it did not stop Tunku Ismail from realising his dream of making Southern Tigers the best team in the region.
Critics always seem to be pointing their finger towards JDT’s financial might for its ability to get the best local and foreign players including former Argentinian internationals Pablo Aimar and Luciano Figueroa.
Tunku Ismail brushed aside critics and went on to prove his prowess as JDT’s president.
His hands-on approach with JDT led them to become a giant in Malaysian football winning three Malaysian Super League titles, the first team to do so, followed by the FA Cup triumph in 2016, and two Charity Shields.
He also renovated the 30,000 capacity Larkin Stadium in Johor Baru changing it from the worst to the best stadium in the country with a state-of-the-art training complex in Padang Seri Gelam; which became the envy of many teams and players in the country.
The Southern Tigers also became the first Malaysian and Southeast Asian football team to win the AFC Cup in its debut season in 2015.
Tunku Ismail then set up a football academy to train children from the age of nine. He also worked hard to bring the best from Europe by forging a close relationship with Borussia Dortmund (Germany) and Valencia (Spain) for its football academy programme.
He also announced that a new football stadium would be built, for JDT, in Gelang Patah and its academy would be in Kulai.
His success with JDT gives hope that he will work and weave his “magic” for the ailing national football team.
Malaysia which at one time qualified for the Olympics in 1980 in its heyday, have been surpassed by its neighbours including Thailand and even the Philippines.
At the last FAM Congress in 2014, Tengku Mahkota Pahang Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah won 27 out of the 39 votes to beat Tunku Ismail in a two-way contest for the president’s post.
Tengku Abdullah’s sudden resignation following Malaysia’s embarrassing 10-0 loss to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in a World Cup qualifying match in November, last year, made Tunku Ismail a favourite to take over the hot seat.
Initially, Tunku Ismail was reluctant to contest the FAM presidency for the second time, as he wanted to focus on JDT.
But he had a change of heart when Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar asked him to save Malaysian football.
When news broke out over the withdrawal of Annuar for the FAM president’s post, I contacted former FAM vice-president and the “Father of Johor Football” Datuk Suleiman Mohd Noor for an interview.
The 88-year-old had served with four FAM presidents, Tunku Abdul Rahman (1958-1974), Tun Abdul Razak (1975-1976), Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah (1976-1983) and long-serving Sultan Ahmad Shah who held the post for 30 years from 1984 to 2014.
He welcomed me with open arms at his home in Stulang Laut and we spoke on the glory days of Malaysian football and on Tunku Ismail’s role in Malaysian football. Suleiman spoke with pride and his eyes lit up saying that Tunku Ismail was the best candidate to be FAM president because of his leadership qualities.
He was confident that under Tunku Ismail’s leadership, FAM and Malaysian football as a whole, would thrive again and could achieve greater heights provided the national body and its affiliated bodies worked closely with him.
Tunku Ismail has a great track record in managing JDT and only time will tell whether Malaysia football will reach great heights again.