Enter the Dragon

Malaysia, like many scions of the Commonwealth, likes its football. Unlike its colonial brethren, however, Malaysia’s affection for and aspiration to this most British of institutions manifests itself with the haphazard zeal of a dog with a full bladder. 

Territory could best be marked with a player in the Premier League, but Titus James Palani is somewhere in the wilds of France. Instead, we shall have to make do with other forms of financial incontinence: AirAsia patches on referees’ uniforms, SP Setia popping up on electronic hoardings around the UK, and Tan Sri Tony Fernandes issuing cheques with the same wanton abandon as his tweets.

Buying into an established Premier League club is difficult. It’s also expensive, as Fernandes found out in 2011. His team, London-based Queens Park Rangers, was relegated last year after letting a series of managers, most notably Harry Redknapp, set fire to piles of money in pursuit of Premier League survival.

Tan Sri Vincent Tan – the common prefix here doing a fine job of hammering home the post-gentrification appeal of football clubs as billionaires’ playthings – was more canny. His solution was to shop a division lower, in the mezzanine section that is the Football League. Here are the sleeping giants of English football, the clubs that speculate on the currency of past glories and unlikely ambitions. Here was Cardiff City Football Club, ripe for purchase in 2010.

Tan’s investment, however, was conditional. Cardiff, nicknamed the Bluebirds, had played in a kit of the corresponding colour for more than a century. Tan put his foot down – rumours of a stamp remain unconfirmed – and demanded a change in the team’s colours, failing which he would take his toys back and play elsewhere

Last year, he had to issue a denial after horrified reactions to the team potentially becoming the Cardiff Dragons. He’s recently returned to the topic, refusing to rule out a name change in an interview that revealed the depth of his football knowledge – suffice to say it does not match the depth of his wallet.

Cardiff now sports a red kit, and received a spiffy new training ground and other shiny baubles in return. Their crest has been redesigned; it still features a bluebird, but one that now looks forlornly up at a great honking big dragon. The dragon is a Welsh institution, but the best theory doing the rounds is that the change was based on the Hokkien translation of “Bluebirds”. This is a family newspaper, however, so there shall be no further elaboration.

The best part of the new badge isn’t even the completely arbitrary motto of “Fire and Passion”. It’s the bit that says “EST 1899”, the first three letters managing to make the club seem like a shop on Old Klang Road trying desperately to convince potential customers of its pedigree – for pedigree is a slippery notion.

Cardiff City is an old club. It has history, even if much of that history has been spent in the lower leagues. A revival of sorts ran aground in the second tier of English football, where the club had remained from 2003 until their promotion at the end of the previous season. They were on the brink of insolvency before Tan stepped in, and continue to bleed cash – in 2011-12 the club recorded a £13.6 million loss and debts to the tune of more than £83 million.

Tan knows this. “Have they achieved any success under this Bluebirds brand?” he asked the BBC last year. “So why do we hold on to something that hasn’t achieved much success?”

It’s a good question, and it has much to do with the masochism inherent in following football. There are 72 clubs in the English league, and only a handful of those have a realistic shot at silverware. For fans of the others, support is a Sisyphean ritual; repetition is the meat of the experience, with hope as the occasional seasoning. The only way to break the cycle, to compete with the elite, are cash injections.

Financial doping is hardly new to football – nor are changes in strip, ground or location, with vitriol to match – but something different is happening in Wales. This is an effort to make Cardiff more commercially viable, the utterly cynical distillation of a club into a brand that can be tweaked before the global marketing offensive begins. 

Cardiff fans, as you would expect, are not happy. It doesn’t help that popular manager Malky Mackay was embroiled in a public spat with Tan over transfers before being relieved of his job last week. Oh, and that the club’s respected head of recruitment, Iain Moody, was replaced with a 23-year-old friend of Tan’s son.

Their club is a mutant, evolved almost beyond recognition. Access to the riches of the Premier League was meant to have been enough to sate Tan’s appetite, or at least canonise him as a necessary evil. But Cardiff is not yet safe from relegation, so this is not yet a straightforward choice between tradition or success. It remains an inelegant scramble for a golden teat, one that could cost Tan his millions – and Cardiff City its soul.

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