Where have all the flowers gone?

AS far as Sarawak football is concerned, in the last few months the news in the Sports section has been just plain unadulterated doom and gloom, with ‘Another dismal season for Sarawak’, ‘Sarawak football on the edge of abyss’, and other rather apocalyptic headlines adorned the pages.

Let me just do a short round out, those who are squeamish please skip this part. Let me see, in this last season the team scored 29 goals and conceded 56, it garnered a grand total of 10 points for the whole year and deservedly sits at the bottom or near bottom of the cellar. Apparently there is another team which is even more pathetic. The players have not been paid for quite sometime. There is a well-worn saying, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” though in this case it is not quite apt. The players are certainly not ‘monkeys’. They are professional athletes who have been hard done by. They slogged on despite the fact that their employer has broken one of the most basic terms of employment contract. Apparently, the Sarawak Football Association (FAS) was working on the premise “you pay nothing and expect something”. I hope when the next round of awards and titles handout comes about these players will get an honourable mention, for they have sacrificed much for the State. Is it a wonder that the most talented and fittest of our players are shopping around for new employers. Oh, before I forget, it is also reported that the association has not been contributing to the Employees’ Provident Fund for some years now. As we all know, that is a legal requirement and as one of the officials said, the EPF has set a deadline for the association to meet its legal obligation.

Given this scenario, it is inevitable that the FAS have to wave the white flag and surrender its place in the Malaysian League for the next three years. Of course, the fact that the Football Association of Malaysia is demanding a deposit of RM500,000 for teams to participate in its leagues has quite a bearing on the decision. Many football fans lament this forced estrangement and I suspect they may have to lament longer than three years. Given the recent history of FAS I am not convinced that three years are long enough for it to haul itself out of this pit of depression.

This state of affair seems to be light years away from the euphoric days of the Ngap Sayot era. Those were the days when visiting teams would tremble at the sight of the baying horde of Sarawak supporters carrying such banners as ‘Agi idup agi ngelaban’ (loosely translated as “struggle till the last breath”). The State stadium was dubbed the ‘cauldron of fire’ and was filled to beyond the brim at every match. The players might have been short on technical skills and of stature but they more than made up with sheer guts and bottle. Urged on by near hysterical fans (which included most Sarawakians I know) the team bludgeoned its way to the FA Cup title. And who can forget the ‘mother of all celebrations’ when led by Awang Mahyan, the charismatic coach, manager and almost spiritual leader, dozens of delirious fans jumped off the Satok Suspension Bridge.

Then came the Alan Vest period when we were held with the greatest respect. The Ngap Sayot team was driven by sheer fighting spirit with our footballers playing like men possessed. Vest was able to build on this crest and create a structure for success with modern professional approach. He brought in a scientific system and also a few big skilful foreign players to compliment the power of the raw emotion of our locals. Our players and staff were treated like real professionals. Among other things, they were paid fair wages commensurate with their skills and performance.

Sadly, now the Satok Suspension Bridge is gone, and with it the fortune of our once mighty team. The end didn’t come quite suddenly, rather it gnawed silently and insidiously at the very core of the organisation until we reach our present sad state when we find ourselves staring up from the very bottom of the dungeon.

That we are at the nadir, a lowest point of despair, is succinctly illustrated by the following recent news report which headlined ‘State players demand for unpaid salaries’.

“With Hari Raya just round the corner, former State players, Zamri Morshidi, Shahrol Saperi, Mazwandie Zekaria, Khalid Hamlet, Zulmizan Bujang and Shamsul Napiah are crying out for their unpaid salaries from FAS. The senior players who refused to play in the Malaysia Cup next month said they were very upset FAS had been keeping mum over their plight.”

It was further reported that one of them had wanted to go home to his family in Baram during the Raya to settle some family issues but had to stay back here due to financial constraints.

There is a poignant song of the 60s, ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ Indeed, “where have they all (the success, spectators, the game, etc.) gone?” for Sarawak football. Believe it or not, in reality it has never gone away. At the grassroots level with thousands still enjoying ‘the beautiful game’ as Pele once put it, it is still alive and kicking vigorously. From my very cursory survey a few months ago I found out that there are many vibrant local football associations running exciting programmes for their members, the case in point being the Mukah Football Association and the Padawan Football Association. Both associations have just completed their local leagues a couple of months ago where 30 teams and 32 teams took part respectively. I also heard that Sibu Football Association has organised some very successful competitions recently.

Perhaps what is struggling is ‘professional football’, the enterprise of the FAS. In spite of the success in the early 90s, this enterprise was seriously flawed. It is flawed because the people involved did not and still do not recognise that ‘professional football’ is a different creature from ‘amateur football’.

Professional football, like any other professional sport, is an entertainment product. It is a commodity which the spectators at the stadium and TV viewers are expected to pay good money for. Like any business, the quality of the product and that of the competitors determine the outcome. Most importantly, commercial enterprise cannot be run by amateurs or people with amateur mentality. They have to accept that as a business venture it has to be commercially viable. It cannot depend on government handouts to survive. After all the State has a greater responsibility to its youths and budding sportsmen and women. As it was stated recently the Sarawak State Sports Council is seeking RM1.5 million annually to fund football development at the schools and community level.

Perhaps, there is a light at the end of this very dark tunnel for professional football. FAM announced that the Malaysian League may be privatised in 2011. I wonder what exactly the meaning of that decision is. If it means that the Malaysian League will no longer be just a meet of Malaysian State representative teams but rather of professional teams which can meet the requirements set out by the FAM, then perhaps that would be a step in the right direction. Now, all we need is a football-loving, business-shrewd multi-millionaire to come forth to form a team and pack it with the Kakas, Renaldos and Messis of Asia.

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

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