Monday, May 23

The tall order

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It is time to produce professional footballers from Sarawak for inclusion in Team Malaysia.

MORE than a decade ago, on board a plane from Kuching to Sibu, I was sitting next to an official from the Sarawak’s then-Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture.

He was talking about the establishment of a Football Academy for Sarawak.

Great news! Had talent-scouting for potential footballers been carried out by his ministry among boys from the various districts in Sarawak, ready for training at the academy?

Did the ministry find out how many of those boys would pursue a career in professional soccer, and how long would it take to spot talents out of a small population like ours – and train them?

I was interested in what he was saying about the importance of building a strong football team for Sarawak not only to compete in other parts of Malaysia, but also in certain countries in the world. He was confident that once the academy was established, there would be a campaign to recruit potential players in preparation for their roles in the state’s team, the national team and so on.

Cart before the horse situation!

Since then, I have not read about any aggressive recruitment of players throughout Sarawak.

It’s possible that I am out of date in this matter. A lot of water has flowed under the Satok Bridge from which coach Awang Mahyan, of the ‘Ngap Sayot’ fame, jumped off for joy after his team had won a prize in the Malaysia Cup!

Remember?

I do follow developments of football fortunes and misfortunes – the ‘Ngap Sayot’ glory days, as well as the current relegation of our team to the bottom pit in the Super League.

But I say cheer up, men! That’s is the spirit of amateur sports: not to win, but to take part.

I used to play soccer during school days and the interest is still there. Hence, the anxiety over the future of football in this state. Is it a dying sport?

But now there’s news about the creation of a Sarawak Sports Village (Borneo Post, Feb 23, 2022). That perked me up a bit.

Is this the academy that the ministry’s official was referring to? Will the Sports Village accommodate the footballers as well?

Football funding

Basically, football in Malaysia is an amateur sport. Public funding through the relevant ministry is necessary for a start, but there will come a time when we have to think in terms of making football pay for itself.

Several years ago, I bumped into a couple of Sarawak state players who were staying in the same hotel where I was in Johor Baru. From a short conversation with one of them, I gathered that amateur football is an expensive game. It costs a lot of money for the Sarawak Team to participate in matches outside the state, in terms of costs of transport and accommodation, not to say remuneration for the players.

If they play several matches in a season, that must have cost a lot of money to their association!

Where can any football association find such money other than from the gate collections?

If the money is from the government, then it’s from the taxpayers again.
And if there are ‘imported players’, who pays for their salaries, etc?

It is not enough to rely on donations from public-spirited individuals either – how many of them are willing to invest in our state team for a long time? Financiers are more inclined to invest in a paying venture rather than an amateur football club that will bring no immediate returns.

Profit motive

I suggest that the game of soccer must be organised with profit in mind. Form a company to manage a football team. Then you have funds to hire professional players from anywhere in the world, the best that money can buy.

Incidentally, in 2018, some foreign players were even granted Malaysian citizenship so that they could play for Malaysia at international tournaments, but the whole thing was not run as a body corporate.

That was the problem.

Not everybody appreciated that generosity. By the way, it was easier for a foreign football player to acquire Malaysian citizenship than a Border Scout in Lawas who had fought for Malaysia during the Confrontation!

Sorry for the digression. Now back to football.

If the team wins, the imported player acquires fame and the coach gets the prestige that he deserves. If the team loses, the blame is on the local players (Malaysians) who are not up to the standard of world-class players.

Thinking big

Malaysia has had a Sports Ministry from the beginning, with a vision and a mission: to participate in international competitions as well as in the Olympics as the ultimate destination.

We have been participating in many of those games and tournaments, and we have produced some athletes of world class.

Is football on its own, and can it separate itself from the other sports in order to be professional?

It is high time that we start to recruit our own people with the aim of turning them into professional footballers, obligated to play for a club managed like a business venture.

It will take years to see one team of local players capable of competing in the open market – but try out the idea, we must.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Otherwise, forget about Malaysia achieving the goal of being a player in something like the World Cup in Qatar, or a slot in the Olympic Games in the near future.

How’s that for a tall order?

* Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.