Ugly side of a beautiful game

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 09 Feb 2014

JDT players leaving the field after T-Team refuse to enter the field in the second half at Stadium Larkin here in Johor Baru. Pic by ABDUL RAHMAN EMBONG/The Star

Malaysian football has become rather colourful of late, with a much publicised tunnel bust-up leading to a game being abandoned at half-time recently.

FORMER national footballer Serbegeth “Shebby” Singh (pic) scoffs when asked about T-Team’s decision to walk out of a match with Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) last week after a tunnel bust-up during half-time.

“The T-Team feared for their lives? OMG. How dramatic!” he remarks bitingly.

He says it is normal in the heat of the moment that emotions run high and “things happen”.

“Somebody hits someone, curses, swears or spits. There is pushing and shoving but then you get on with the game.”

Blackburn's new manager Henning Berg, right, answers questions as he sits alongside the club's global advisor Shebby Singh during a press conference at Ewood Park Stadium, Blackburn, England, Thursday Nov. 1, 2012. Berg who won the Premier League title as a player with Blackburn Rovers in 1995 succeeds Steve Kean who resigned to end a troubled spell as manager. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

He points out that this “happens a lot” in the tunnel at football matches everywhere in the world.

Chuckling, he says that even Manchester United’s (then) manager Alex Ferguson was not immune and had pizza chucked at him in the tunnel by an Arsenal player in 2004.

So Serbegeth cannot understand why there is a “big hoo-ha” over the recent tunnel bust-up in Larkin when “such things are a norm in football”.

“Come on, it is a man’s game. People should be ‘man’ enough to come out and complete the match.

“It is ridiculous when a team refuses to come out and play in the second half. You have to play the game,” he stresses.

If it was him who was roughed out in the tunnel, he would be even more motivated and determined to come out and play and trash the other team on their home ground in front of their fans.

Serbegeth is a Johorean and he was at the Larkin Stadium during that tunnel bust-up. But he insists he is not speaking as a Johorean but as a national player.

“If you speak to 10 footballers, all 10 will say what I am saying. But if you speak to non-football people, they will be on their high horse and think differently.”

JDT was leading 2-1 in the first half of the FA Cup second round clash when Terengganu’s T-Team abandoned the match, citing “fear for safety”. They subsequently lodged police reports.

In their reports, they allege that a “top Johor FA official” had punched striker Evaldo Goncalves on the nose, and the official’s escort had kicked fitness coach Stefano Impagaliazzo in the groin. Defender Fabio Flor de Azevado alleges he was verbally abused and threatened by the “Johor FA president”, who is none other than Tunku Mahkota Johor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim.

The Crown Prince (TMJ) has been instrumental in reviving football in the country and bringing massive crowds back to the stadiums and transforming JDT into a formidable top team worthy of praise.

The fans during Malaysia Cup 2013 final match between Kelantan and Pahang at Shah Alam Stadium yesterday. IZZRAFIQ ALIAS / The Star. November 3, 2013.
Unwavering support : The fans during the Malaysia Cup 2013 final match between Kelantan and Pahang at Shah Alam Stadium. Football fans today are very vocal in supporting their team. — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/ The Star

That has got Serbegeth wondering if this is the reason he is being targeted.

JDT has also lodged its own police report in which JDT coach Cesar Jimenez alleges he was assaulted by Impagaliazzo and Goncalves.

Serbegeth says there is no need to pinpoint who the real aggressor is because it will only come down to a “he said, she said” situation and hard to prove.

He suggests that both teams should be severely dealt with and fined for the fracas, with T-Team fined an additional amount for refusing to play.

Sports commentator, journalist and blogger Rizal Hashim says it is common to have all sorts of provocation on the football field and in the tunnel, but what is essential is how one reacts to the provocation.

“If you are a leader of men, then you should be able to withstand any sort of provocation, especially in football. We need to learn to swallow our pride and walk away in the face of provocation,” he adds.

Rizal was in Stadium Merdeka some 20 years ago when he witnessed a Malaysian spitting at Claude Le Roy who was then the Malaysian national coach (1994 to 1995) and a famous coach internationally.

Le Roy had coached Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon to be runners-up and champions in a number of international competitions as well as qualify for the World Cup.

“But Le Roy just took his handkerchief and wiped the spit off. That is the biggest form of provocation, yet he called it off,” says Rizal.

He points out that on the pitch, all football practitioners know that any sort of retaliation is a red card offence.

“Provocation is part and parcel of football. You are being provoked constantly with foul language or four-letter words but you just have to ignore it.

“Whatever the provocation, as professionals, T-Team knows the consequences of their action if they refuse to enter the field for the second half. They know FAM would have no choice then but to award that game to JDT.

“So why did they do it? Did they really fear for their safety? Or were they perhaps trying to send out a strong message?’’ Rizal asks.

As one football fan said on social media, while tunnel bust-ups might be common between players and officials, what is unusual in the Larkin case is who allegedly threw the punch.

“If it is true that TMJ threw the punch, would that not be like Roman Abramovich (the tycoon behind Chelsea) going down to the tunnel and punching one of the Liverpool players?” this dedicated fan asks.

What happens if the purported hitting is done by someone of standing in society and who happens to own the club?

An upset Maya Hisham, on one of the pro-T-Team Facebook pages, calls FAM, the police, the Youth and Sports Minister as well as the Terengganu Mentri Besar “cowards” because they “dare not act against the palace”.

Even though T-Team conceded the game by walking out, there have been two versions and twists (one from a Johorean who plays with T-Team) as to who called the shots and on whether it was a collective decision,

Terengganu fans seem to have rallied behind their team.

“TMJ has done wonders for football in the country. There might have been provocation but that does not give him the licence to behave as he wants.

“The message T-Team is sending is that they won’t condone such action especially in the area which is meant only for players, match officials and the relevant individuals,” says another fan while discussing the hot football issue over teh tarik.

JDT too has been super touchy when it comes to football.

Last month, Kosmo ran an article with the heading JDT “Cakap Besar” (JDT Talks Big) which landed them in a spot.

The Johor FA expressed regret and disappointment over the heading and decided to “bar Kosmo representatives from attending any matches and to carry any news statement relating to Johor Football Association”, which is rather unusual.

Other than this bit of colour, there have been other aspects which have flavoured and spiced up local football, including over-­enthusiastic fans.

Jamil (not his real name) is a diehard Selangor fan who “lives, loves, breathes and bleeds” football.

For him, the publicity of the tunnel fracas is a good thing because drama “develops even more attention” to the local football scene.

Despite being a Selangor fan, he has the utmost respect for TMJ and JDT because he feels it is TMJ who has elevated the game to a totally different level by pumping in money, buying good players and building up a solid team.

“This has an impact on other players too because other teams also have to increase salaries to retain their players and also build up a good team.”

Jamil says he has been to a number of matches where there has been fan trouble.

The atmosphere is electric, emotionally charged with adrenaline pumping, he says, and it just takes a bad decision by the referee, players not playing properly or something that the other team does, to spark something off.

“I have seen a makcik pick up a bottle and throw it,” says Jamil, who is not averse to joining in the adrenaline-pumping show of emotion.

He confesses that during a game in Singapore in 2011, he managed to hit a Singapore policeman.

“I just wanted to give the Singapore police a ‘souvenir’. I got away with it because they did not expect it,” he says, savouring the memory.

But for the next game, the Singapore police were well prepared, armed with cameras and took their photos.

“I’ve tried to enter Singapore since then for two football matches but I got stopped both times at immigration. They have my photo and won’t let me in.

“But if I am just going to Singapore for a holiday, when there is no game on, there is no problem for me getting in,” says Jamil.

Malaysian football sank to an embarrassing low in 1994 when players were caught in a huge match-fixing and bribery scandal.

Over the years, there has been only a handful of fan violence. But these have started becoming more common from 2009 onwards when interest in local football started peaking again.

During the 2009 FA Cup semifinals in Kelantan (against Negri Sembilan), Kelantanese fans went wild, damaged public property and even torched a police truck.

There was a repeat of this a few months later at the Malaysia Cup Final in Bukit Jalil, also between Kelantan and Negri Sembilan, when fans ripped out and burnt stadium seats, and damaged the stadium gates and toilets, incurring a loss of RM214,000 in total.

In other matches, there have been cases of fans throwing objects and bottles, lighting firecrackers, roughing up supporters of the opposing team and throwing things at their buses.

In November, a pistol with seven bullets was found in a toilet in the Shah Alam stadium a day after a match was played there.

Rizal says football hooliganism does exist in Malaysia but feels there was less of it last year.

“I think it is because the moment the fans fight, their respective team will suffer. FAM will mete out punishment and fines. FAM can also ask these teams to play in empty stadiums and the fans don’t want this,” he says.

Rizal is really elated with the kind of appeal local football has been having in recent years.

He says that in the 1970s and 80s, when there were crowds in the stadium, there was no dedicated sports channel so people rarely got to watch local matches live on TV.

“But now we have Astro Arena and there is an increase in the audience. The social media have also become a tool to promote the game.

“The younger generation knows the game through the social media. That’s where they interact with the practitioners and also socialise with other fans. They can also provoke each other on the Internet.

“It’s a new phenomenon. It’s good for the game.”

But with it, he points out, there must be greater responsibility where players must be professional, fans must create a conducive environment, and authorities and the clubs must communicate well with each other to stage a successful match,

“You can’t hand the burden of every single aspect of football in the country to FAM.

“If a match is held in Johor, then Johor must take full responsibility. Say it is in Terengganu, then Terengganu must bear full responsibility, and so on. The respective FA must take time to educate and interact with the fans and seek the help of the police even when they sell tickets so that there won’t be fights.”

Serbegeth, on the other hand, does not think hooliganism has come to Malaysian football because, for him, hooliganism has to be organised, deliberate and aimed at causing trouble.

So the “spontaneous outburst of passion” among Malaysian fans, he says, even if “some idiots throw a bottle or two” is mild and does not come close to hooliganism.

“Sure, things happen when passion overflows. But when you come off the pitch eventually, the next day when you are in the hotel or travelling to the hotel, life is normal. Nobody hunts you down.”

Serbegeth says today’s modern fans are more than involved in the team they support. “They want to have a say and voice their opinion.”

He loves the drama and says the atmosphere in a game these days is “unbelievable” with all the chanting, singing and cheering.

For Serbegeth, “fans have to feel the pain and let out their emotions” if their team is defeated.

“You are not a fan if you just accept the result. You have a rant and a rave and move on.

“But don’t let it fester. Learn how to deal with defeat. And make sure you are there for your team for the next game.”

He says that while hooliganism is not part of the Malaysian football fan culture as yet, the authorities nonetheless should be proactive and nip any possibility of it happening in the bud.

It would be a good thing, he suggests, if within four minutes after the final whistle blows, the stadium is empty and home fans are asked to disperse quickly and the away fans are escorted to safety.

“The police should make sure no one is milling around and waiting for the away fans. It is the responsibility of the home team to make sure the away fans get home safely.”

Currently, FAM comes down hard on teams if their fans do not behave.

“If you are a home team with 30,000 people in the stadium, it is the responsibility of the home team to make sure that they behave.”

But more can and should be done. For one, Serbegeth feels having more cameras in the stadiums would make it easier to identify the troublemakers and act.

“Culprits should be banned from coming for future games for a season. If they are repeat offenders, they can be handed over to the police.”

Heavier fines too, he adds, would become a deterrent.

“Don’t fine the team RM10,000. You must hit them hard! You fine them RM50,000 for the first offence, RM100,000 for the second, and RM150,000 for the third as well as dock three points.

“That way, you hit the teams hard, first in the pocket and second you dock points. That’s when people will wake up and say ‘No, we can’t let this happen.’ And the onus will then be on the club or team to take more responsibility.”

Serbegeth also says playing to an empty stadium is a great punishment because it really hurts the team as it cannot sell tickets and make money on match days.

“You can’t punish a home team by playing on neutral ground because you are inconveniencing the other team as well. Why punish both teams if one is the offender?”

Having more football stewards can also help.

“But they should be facing the crowd and looking out for troublemakers and not like the present where they have their backs turned to the crowd, and they are watching the match,” he says.

But why is it that unruly fan behaviour and hooliganism happen only with football and not other team sports like cricket, hockey, rugby or basketball?

“Football is the game of the masses. The numbers are bigger. When some matches are played, the world even comes to a standstill. Other sports might be great but they will never rival football,” says Serbegeth.

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