MALAYSIAN football lost its number one supporter on May 22 when Pahang’s Paduka Ayahanda Sultan Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah ibni Almarhum Sultan Abu Bakar Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mu’adzam Shah returned to the Almighty.
It was not something that shocked me or several others, as we knew the Sultan had not been in the best of health for the last year or so. But nonetheless, his passing still came as a shock to many, and it has left a huge vacuum among the football fraternity that will be hard to fill.
Sultan Ahmad Shah’s contribution to Malaysian sports, especially football, has never been questioned. His commitment, dedication and belief in the national football team and local football scene was unwavering and second to none.
I was very fortunate to have, on two occasions, witnessed the legacy of this great man, once while serving the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) as its media officer between 1994 and 2004 under the leadership of the late Datuk Seri Paul Mony Samuel, and later, as a football writer with a local English daily from 2005 to 2010.
Sultan Ahmad Shah became FAM president on Aug 12, 1984, when he took over the reins from another Pahang product, Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah, who had held the post since 1976.
Sultan Ahmad Shah was committed to revamping the league and started talking to various sponsors, namely Dunhill, Sharp-Roxy Malaysia and Genting to name a few, to come on board.
The president knew that without strong financial backing, it would be near impossible to run the league.
After securing vital financial backing, Sultan Ahmad Shah, together with his trusted lieutenant Paul Mony, worked closely to change the league from being an amateur competition to a semi-professional one.
The semi-pro league was launched in 1989 and in 1996, it gained full professional league status.
In 2004, it became known as Liga Super. State FAs initially received a subsidy of RM300,000 a year but in 1994, it was increased to a whopping RM1mil per team, thanks to the new FAM president.
Unlike the present day where we have sports marketing agencies and commercial arms trying to secure the best deal for a team, in the 1990s, Malaysian football had only Paul Mony and Sultan Ahmad Shah trying to rope in the sponsors, which they did and soon after, football fans could watch matches on TV courtesy of RTM. This was the start of bigger things to come.
To his credit, Sultan Ahmad Shah never missed any council meetings which were mostly held at Wisma FAM. He would chair the meetings, and more often than not, attend press conferences which would then be followed with a friendly dialogue with members of the media.
This gave him the opportunity to get their opinions and thoughts on various issues. There was no protocol and if he knew your name, he would call you from afar. Even when some sports writers were calling for him to step down, he remained on friendly terms with them, unlike some present-day leaders of Malaysian sports who are quick to send legal letters.
Sultan Ahmad Shah in his 30 years helming FAM had never sued or reprimanded any sports writer for criticising him. Present-day leaders should emulate the late Sultan Ahmad Shah in being open to criticism, especially when you are serving the rakyat.
He often said in Bahasa, “Bola ini kepunyaan rakyat, saya jaga untuk rakyat sahaja.”
Over the past 30 years in FAM, Sultan Ahmad Shah gave millions to repair Wisma FAM and paid bonuses to national team players from his own pocket.
He was very generous, and I am sure many will agree that he, through his officers, helped former athletes financially who had to undergo medical treatment.
Of course at that time there was no social media to publicise it, but even if there was, the president was not a publicity seeker. He kept it very quiet. He left FAM with RM49mil in fixed deposit and zero debts.
He was a giver, a trait that is shared by the current Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah.
When he was the Crown Prince of Pahang, Sultan Abdullah would watch and learn from Sultan Ahmad Shah, especially his leadership in sports like football and hockey.
Like his father, Sultan Abdullah too became FAM president, served AFC and FIFA and was the president of the Malaysian Hockey Confederation and Asian Hockey Confederation.
I remember vividly at the 2007 SEA Games in Korat, Thailand, Sultan Ahmad Shah flew in to meet the team members while they were training at an army camp.
He spent close to three hours there and hosted a dinner for them before flying back to Kuala Lumpur the same day. I was then a sports journalist and we waited for him at the base camp. Without fail he would always address members of the media as “Gentleman of the press, what can I do for you today?”. That was Sultan Ahmad Shah.
Under his leadership, Malaysia won the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, SEA Games gold medal in 1989, 2009 and 2011 and were Merdeka Tournament Champions in 1993.
Sultan Ahmad Shah was also known to be a person who officers of state teams could approach if they needed advice and support.
There have been occasions when he solved many internal football issues, especially when politics came into play and unseen hands were trying to disrupt the game.
While he was actively involved in FAM, Sultan Ahmad Shah became the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president in 1994 and held the post until 2002. He wanted AFC to be based in Malaysia permanently, and from a tiny office in the Olympic Council of Malaysia, AFC now has its headquarters in Bukit Jalil.
Sultan Ahmad Shah was a visionary – he planned things ahead of time. He met Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1995 and requested for a piece of land in Bukit Jalil the same time the Bukit Jalil Stadium was being built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
I learnt from reliable sources that it was Sultan Ahmad Shah who paid for the land title to acquire the land and in 2007, transferred everything back to the AFC. He never took one sen and gave what he could.
He was pivotal in bringing the World Cup to Asia. His skills in negotiating with football bodies allowed Asia to receive an additional slot for the World Cup.
For his contribution to Asian and world football, he was bestowed the AFC Diamond Award in November 2011, and the FIFA Order of Merit in 2012 at the FIFA Congress in Budapest.
The Asean Football Federation (AFF) needed Sultan Ahmad Shah’s leadership and in 2011, he made sure the AFF Suzuki Cup was commercially profitable.
He worked well with the then AFF general secretary Datuk Azzuddin Ahmad and ensured that AFF was on a strong footing.
Once again the visionary felt that Asean football needed a home and Sultan Ahmad Shah requested that the government allocate a home for AFF. Its headquarters in Putrajaya is at the final stages of construction.
It’s hard to imagine a leader spending 34 years of his life serving the game. I don’t think I will ever see anyone doing what Sultan Ahmad Shah had done, they would have big shoes to fill.
While Pahang is mourning the loss of a great man, the football family also mourns. Before Sultan Ahmad Shah left, he gave FAM a piece of land adjacent to AFF in Putrajaya. He probably knew that one day we would need bigger training facilities to accommodate the various national teams. I hope FAM will name it “Sultan Ahmad Shah National Training Centre”. No one deserves it more.
I will take the following lessons from him – one is to be committed to the cause and give your best in all that you do and last but not least, talent is God-given, so be humble.
Sultan Ahmad Shah served the game with distinction and humility, even when Malaysian football was hit with a massive bribery scandal in 1994 and 97 players were banned.
Many were calling for FAM to be more lenient with the players as they felt the punishment was too harsh but the president stuck to his guns and the punishment remained.
When push came to shove, the gloves came off and a resilient Sultan Ahmad Shah showed he could be a formidable fighter.
So it is with a heavy heart that I say “Rest in peace, Sultan Ahmad Shah, the true Sultan of Malaysian sports. You will be missed, Tuanku.”
Christopher Raj is chief executive officer of a sports public relations agency. Chris’ Twitter account is @chrisraj23