Harimau Muda look to the West

It is reported in Malaysia that Harimau Muda (translates as Young Tigers) are to enter a side into the Slovakian First Division when it resumes following the winter break. As yet, I can find no equivalent reports from Slovakia to confirm the agreement, and the fixture list still shows fixtures for Sport Podbrezova, who pulled out of the league just five games into the season. Confusingly, the report says they will be based in the city of Vion. I can find no reference to this place, and suspect that they will actually be at Zlate Moravce, whose team in the same league carries the sponsor’s name ViOn.

Harimau Muda is basically the national youth squad of Malaysia, with the players concerned having been removed from club teams and put on central contracts, in much the same way as the English cricket team. At under-19 level, they have been competing in the lower division (perversely called the Malaysian Premier League) of the Malaysian league. At the end of last season, they won this division, but were prevented from taking up promotion to the Malaysian Super League. Instead, they have remained the Premier League, and remained as an under-19 squad. Those players graduating from the young squad on age grounds were not given anywhere to go, as they were still not permitted to rejoin club sides. The team to play in Slovakia are the national U-21 squad.

Having been kept out of their own national league, there then came a suggestion they should join the Singaporean League. It seemed a surprising suggestion, considering the politics of this are. Until 1994, Singapore entered a team in the Malaysian League. Although this team had non-Singaporeans, it was still the basis of their national side as well. The S-League has a history of allowing a number of foreign sides into its competition. Albirex Niigata, with a senior team in Japan’s J-League have been operating in Singapore for several seasons, I guess they believe it is a good training ground for their younger players. There have been a number of Chinese teams in the league, and for the last few years, there has been a Korean team. All the ‘foreign’ teams in the S-League have a base within Singapore, and play a team made up 100% of their own nationals. The rest of the S-League combines Singaporeans with a limited number of foreign nationals. Whereas I have never been certain about the success of say, Albirex Niigata, in terms of transfers back to Japan – it is clear that their existence has increased the number of Japanese players with other Singaporean clubs – most are graduates from the Niigata club.

There was a departure for the S-League last season when DPMM were admitted. DPMM had followed on from a long tradition of Brunei clubs in the Malaysian leagues, but were thrown out in December 2008 (between seasons) when the Brunei FA failed to register properly with a governmental agency. Taking them into the S-League, DPMM were an instant success with good crowds and results. Unlike the other ‘foreign’ teams, they continued to play in Brunei, and used Brunei players with a permitted number of foreigners. However, local politics conflicted with FIFA policy, the government attempting to set up a new organisation to run football in Brunei. FIFA then suspended the country from all international football, and DPMM were forced out of the S-League with just five fixtures to play, and the League Cup in their trophy room. Had Harimau Muda been accepted into the S-League, they would have been a team of Malay nationals only, but it was uncertain whether they would have been based in Singapore, or played home games in Malaysia.

However, despite the fact that they had a vacancy, and the chance to turn the tables on their local and larger rivals, the S-League refused to admit the Malaysian team into their membership. Instead they have given places to a side affiliated to Chinese champions Beijing Guo’an, and to Etoile FC, who are intending to use only French nationals. Incidentally, the Singaporean equivalent to Harimau Muda, the Young Lions, play at Under-21 level in the S-League, so by taking in the Malay team, they would effectively be raising three matches per season to the level of U-21 international.

Not perturbed by this, the FAM turned to Europe, and appear to have come to an agreement where their team will take over Podbrezova’s fixtures from the end of the month. The Malaysian report says these matches will be competitive, but that must be open to questioning? With 14 games to play, it is difficult to believe that points will be awarded, as they will be playing 3 of their 11 opponents twice, but the rest once only. If points are not awarded, then surely these games are no more than friendlies, and the Slovakian sides will have no incentive to put out their strongest XI.

Is this the way forward for small nations, anxious for the players to get experience? Could we see a number of National, or National Under-21 sides playing in European leagues? It certainly could help their players to gain experience in a more competitive arena (at least, if the games are made to be competitive), and it puts these players closer to the market place, increasing their chances of being picked up by European clubs generally.

On the other hand, keeping a squad of 26 players and their coaches away from home for four months or more must be testing the FAM’s finances. In the meantime, their home league is in disarray, two top division clubs pulled out at the end of last season, and this season they will have only one representative in Asian club competitions, the other citing costs as their reason for not competing. The clubs also complain that the rule banning foreign players in Malaysia reduces their competitiveness in these competitions.

The senior national team fares no better, with heavy defeats in the 2007 Asian Cup followed by straight defeats in all their games in the quest to reach the 2011 finals, while the World Cup campaign was over almost before it began. The loss of a group of players who should be among the best in the league is not exactly doing anything to improve the situation.

Last seasons under-19 squad, having won the lower division of the Malaysian League, then narrowly failed to make it to the finals of the Asian Under 19 competition. This may be an acceptable return for keeping the squad together, but one wonders what will be required to justify running a squad abroad – the next challenges for Malaysia are Olympic qualifying for London 2012 (an u-23 squad then, so basically using the current u-21 team) and the 2014 World Cup – Asian qualification is going to start incredibly early, but I think Malay pride would settle for an improved performance in the more local ASEAN Cup at the end of the year.

Post script – since writing this, I have been alerted to a Slovakian news story. What this shows is that while the idea is being given serious consideration in Slovakia (as a series of friendlies, not for league points), the decision will not be made until a meeting of the clubs on 15 February.

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