18/09/2007

Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

Still four more matches to report upon in the final week of my Asian tour. The first of these was Johor FC in Malaysia. As I explained in the Singapore piece, Malaysian football used to be entirely an competition between states. Malaysia is made up of 12 states, plus the city of Kuala Lumpur, which in a similar way to Washington in the USA is federal territory and not actually part of any state. 10 of the states are in Peninsula or Western Malaysia – between the Thai border and Singapore, whereas the two largest ones form the northern part of the Island of Borneo. The rest of Borneo is part of Indonesia, with the exception of the small sultanate of Brunei.

Until 1994, all of the states competed in the Malaysian League, while qualification for the prestigious Malaysia Cup was dependent on position in the league position. The actual format of the league tended to vary from season to season, changing every time the national team failed in international competition, with different formats for competition (in one or two divisions), or different numbers of foreign players allowed. The numbers in the league were normally 15 or 16 with the 12 states and Kuala Lumpur joined by Brunei, Singapore and on occasion by the Malaysian Armed Forces.

The rest of the set up was more similar to the County cricket system in England, than to our football competitions. If you consider the state FA’s as local equivalents of county associations – each then runs competitions for clubs within its region. In addition, there was a national cup (with very little publicity) for the same clubs, and a small number of them would compete in the Malaysian FA Cup (which is not the same as the Malaysia Cup) with the state teams. Within this framework, it should be noted that few if any of the club teams represent towns or villages, even though every town and village is sure to have its own football field. Instead most of the teams, especially the successful ones are named after companies. I have only been to a few matches in the local leagues, all in the Selangor League back in 1996. The first of these was on a town stadium, in Kajang – a sizeable town some 30 km south of Kuala Lumpur. The stadium was somewhat untidy, showing a lack of maintenance over the years, but was still a decent stadium. The home team for the match, however was not a representative of the town, but “Public Bank FC”. The match was played in late afternoon, trying to avoid the worst heat from earlier in the day, but having to complete before all light is lost soon after sunset. The ground is in a town centre, near a mosque, and the call to prayer at sunset was clearly audible. This remains the only match I have ever seen with an interruption for a “prayer-break”.

After Singapore left the Malaysian League in 1994 due to the corruption scandal, they carried on for a while with a single division of 15 teams, but in Malaysia, the pattern has always been to change things around every few years. Basically, every time they lose in qualifying for Continental or World Cups. The alternatives are to either increase or decrease the number of foreigners allowed, or to re-organise the league. During the late nineties, the introduction of a professional league was the big thing, (after the team’s failure at this year’s Asian cup, one of the letters to the paper said they would be better reverting to an amateur league), but when they decided they again wanted a two division league, they needed more teams, so from 1998, some of the club teams gradually entered the leagues. One of the first of these was Johor FC – which is connected to a company called the Johor Corporation (JCorp for short). For a while the shared the stadium with Johor state, in the city of Johor Bahru – meaning that we had two teams, called Johor and Johor FC sharing a ground in Johor Bahru. If this was not confusing enough, another club team called Pasir Gudang later joined the league, playing at a stadium owned by JCorp. For 2007, Pasir Gudang merged with the Johor state team and play in Johor Bahru – as Johor Pasir Gudang, while Johor FC play now play in Pasir Gudang. Apparently the locals are not confused. I am confused enough that while I knew the two towns were about 30 km apart, I could not work out whether Pasir Gudang was East or West of JB. At least some things are simple – when I looked the place up on the internet, I found only one hotel – the sketch map provided showed it in the vicinity of the football stadium, so I booked a room. I then took a bus from Singapore to JB – a wonderful journey as one has to get off the bus twice, to pass through Malaysia and Singapore border control. The second time you have to take your luggage with you. Arriving in JB, I found the bus out went from a different bus station about 5 km away. With the local taxi drivers somewhat reluctant to tell me how to get to the other bus station, I ended taking a taxi across to my hotel (Pasir Gudang turned out to be East of JB).

The stadium was indeed, no more than a ten-minute walk from the hotel. I passed a small shopping centre and the bus station – but apart from that the place seemed to have nothing to offer. The roads were wide, but near to empty, I could spot some industrial sites in the distance but little else. The stadium at Pasir Gudang is sandwiched between two high stands of concrete steps. The centre section on one side has a high roof, with a couple of radio commentary boxes at the top. Behind one goal is a large, manual scoreboard, while spectators behind the goals can make use of small sections of rather high wooden benches. The game itself was truly entertaining, with the visitors, Sarawak trying hard to escape their fate at the bottom of the table, but finding Johor FC too good for them. The final score was 3-1 in Johor’s favour.

The following morning, and from Pasir Gudang’s bus station, I made the five hour journey up to Kuala Lumpur and from there, a day later onwards to Brunei. The flight was with Air Asia, the biggest of the budget airlines which have spouted up across Asia since deregulation. You may recognise the name – it will displayed on the kit of the referee and his assistants at today’s game. Air Asia are also a sponsor of Manchester United. This is one of the biggest problems for Asian football – it is considered more productive to sponsor English football than to put money into the local games – even though the increasing demands of the Premiership to consume money, means that only subscription channels show the matches in most countries.

Brunei took its independence from the UK later than Singapore and Malaysia, in 1984 and has never espoused democracy. Instead the Sultan is an absolute monarch. It has been a sultanate with the same family ruling for over 500 years. Indeed 500 years ago, the territory covered by the Sultanate included the entire island of Borneo, plus parts of what is now the Philippines. Over the years, different countries and the European empires sliced away at this territory, and what was left became a British protectorate in 1888 to avoid the risk of disappearing absolutely. The country has a population of around 380,000 and is a rich and prosperous country, thanks mainly to oil. It must leave many of those no longer in the sultanate envious of what they may have been part of. The Sultan himself was for a period, considered to be the richest man in the world, but a bad investments (mainly by the Sultan’s brother, who was accused of embezzling £8 billion from the country – although the charges were later dropped) have decreased that. The wealth does spread around the country, with free education and a health service, plus no income or corporation tax. As a result, certain things such as taxis and hotels are not cheap, and I was travelling with a German hopper on limited resources. The last bus into town from the airport left before our flight arrived, and so we hitched a lift to save the taxi fare. The friendliness of the locals was shown by the fact that our efforts to hitch lifts were always successful, and that people would go out of their way to drop us off where we wanted to go. As it happened, the visit coincided with the end of the Sultan’s birthday celebrations, (61 years old), which run for 5 weeks each year. The festivities were on the padang (a local word for the equivalent of a village common). Centre pieces appeared to consist of a tug of war contest, fireworks and a parade of floats all sponsored by either companies or government departments.

The city of the main town was very busy for these festivities, especially on match day – and in advance we were treated to a special performance of the FA of Malaysia’s competence. The match was scheduled as Saturday 8.45 as part of the last day of the Malaysian League season. About a week before the match, we noticed the date had changed to Sunday on the official fixtures – this turned out to be in response to a Brunei request to switch it away from the celebrations. On calling the Malay FA, we were told 4.15 on Saturday, before the main evening celebrations in Brunei, but by the time we arrived the match was back in the evening. Although listed at 8.15 in the local paper, it actually kicked off at 8.45 – the same time as the match in neighbouring Sarawak, as the winner of the title was between the two away teams, Kedah playing in Brunei, and Perak.

Brunei’s football team is Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota Football Club. Not surprisingly this is generally abrieviated to DPMM.. The name of the football club is one of the titles conferred upon the crown prince of Brunei, Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah. Under the club name, the team was formed in 1994, with the Prince himself in goal. They played in local competition until 2005, when they took over the mantle of being Brunei’s team in the Malaysian League. Much of the support just refers to the team as Brunei, but the change has brought new life to the club, as they have moved from being mid-table in the Malay second division, winning promotion last season, and finishing in third place this time. As a Brunei team, naturally Brunei born players, who would be foreigners elsewhere in the league are not counted as such, and their one Malay player alos does not count as a foreigner. They have three true foriegners, signed from Korea, Chile and Croatia

We arrived at the stadium around an hour before the expected kick off, and found the ground almost deserted – but by the time the match actually started, there were about 5000 people in the stadium,. The normal crowds are between 7 and 10,000 – which is around 2-3% of the population of the country. This actually makes Brunei one of the world’s football hotspots. Less than 1% of the population of England watch the game during a typical weekend. Only Monaco, where the average crowd of 13,000 equates to 40% of the population clearly has a greater support in these terms than Brunei – but then much of Monaco’s support comes from France, whereas few people travel from Malaysia to watch Brunei. The ground is a large bowl with a running track, and cover over one side only. Kedah, knew they had to win the game in order to take the Malaysian title, and started out looking as if they were determined to overpower Brunei, despite the home team’s third place in the league. It was no surprise that Kedah went ahead in the 14th minute. However, after that, DPMM made a substitution, and reorganised the formation, and they were the dominant team for the rest of the game. It was only by good fortune that Kedah managed to hold on to win the game and the title. Two weeks ago, Kedah added the prestigious Malaysia Cup title to their honours for the season, beating Perak with 77,000 watching at Bukit Jalil. (That is more than four times as many as turned up there for Malaysia’s Asian Cup games).

From Brunei, I flew directly back to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. In a change from the crowds on the budget airlines, I went on a near empty Brunei Airlines flight. From HCMC, I was able to arrange to see two matches in the Vietnamese League, one in each of the first and second division. Both were about an hour’s drive from the city, but I spoiled myself and rather than trying to sort out local transportation (there would have been bus services), I allowed the tour booking office to arrange transportation for me (car and driver) at US$50 for each game. The Tuesday match in the second division was a 3.30 kick off, as there were no floodlights. While this restricts the attendance, the league’s website shows similar crowds to the 1000 in the ground for my game on the previous Saturday. On a hot and sunny afternoon, I saw Dong Nai beat Quang Nam by three goals to two, in a really enjoyable game. The ground was fully enclosed with cover on one side only, and mainly concrete stands. The first division ground was similar in style, but much bigger in size. While Dong Nai would not hold 10,000 comfortably, Binh Duong frequently attract 20,000 to the Go Dau stadium. The figure for the previous Sunday against Da Nang (second in the league) had been 18,000 – but on a Wednesday, and with the game starting in heavy rain, my match was watched by only half that figure. Still the covered stand was crowded as the fans tried to avoid the worst of the weather. It took a long while for Binh Duong to assert their superiority over the visitors, with the opening goal coming from a penalty after 67 minutes. In the end Binh Duong were comfortable 2-0 winners, and since my trip, they have maintained form, so they will go into tomorrow’s final round of games already assured of the title. Good to see several hundred away fans in the ground, especially considering that by road or rail, the journey would have taken in excess of 24 hours!

It appears that local football is in quite a healthy state in Vietnam, despite the problems the league has had in recent years. Back in July, nine people, including a FIFA ranked referee were found guilty of fixing games in the 2005 season, with allegations suggesting games have been fixed since the current professional league started in 2001. However, with jail terms of up to seven years for this latest scandal, there now seems to be a feeling that the league is now clean. The results of the national team, in being the only one of four Asian cup hosts to reach the quarter finals is being seen as a success. The only remaining cloud on the horizon was that despite heavy security presence at both the games I saw (and no signs of trouble), there has again been incidents of crowd violence this season, although none as bad as when a linesmen was seriously injured by a rock thrown from the stands at Long An last season.