The circus is not coming to town again

So last week, Chelsea came to these shores, played our national football team, duly dispatched them 4-1, and went off on their merry way to play the Indonesian selection. Next month, it’s the Catalans; FC Barcelona’s turn to grace us with their visit, also to play our national football team. However, the more astute fans would have realised that the matches themselves aren’t newsworthy. In fact, it was the events and reactions surrounding the two matches that have sparked furious discussions regarding the direction taken by our national team this year.

The most important issue at hand, as voiced out by the media and the more demanding section of the Malaysian fans, is the Football Association of Malaysia’s penchance for organising friendly matches for the Malayan Tigers against club sides, instead of against other national teams. Last month, the Malayan Tigers were taken to Australia to play two club sides. A few days before the Chelsea match, the national team took on Thailand’s Chonburi FC. And as this piece is being written, the Tigers are in Japan to face a series of friendlies with, wait for it, yes, more club teams.

Now, why is this even a problem? Any kind of friendly match is a good opportunity to play right? When it comes to a national team, not exactly. Okay, hang on, you’re in for a ride.

Why is it important for national teams to play friendly matches against other national teams? This is because international football runs on a ranking system. One of the most important reasons for national teams to ensure a healthy standing in the ranking, is that it ensures better seeding in competitions. For example in the World Cup Qualification for the AFC region, teams are put through three long and arduous stages in order to qualify to the World Cup; the pre-qualification, the first grouping, and the final group stage. A team that ranks higher in the FIFA ranking will get to skip the pre-qualification and the first grouping stages, so the team will have a better chance of qualifying as they only enter the qualifiers near the end.
So how does a national team climb the ranking? Only by playing other national teams in official FIFA ‘A’ international matches. The details are a bit complicated, but basically, it goes that when a team wins an ‘A’ match, the tea m scores ranking points. Then at the end of every month, the points are calculated, and the international teams are ranked according to how many points they have accumulated.

Malaysia lost to Yemen in this tie 2-1.

Now what’s Malaysia’s current ranking? A disappointing 159. And when was the last time Malaysia played in an ‘A’ match? All the way back in March, against Yemen. Now you see why our ranking is so far away from the top; our administration simply can’t be bothered to arrange a friendly with a proper national team.

And another thing with international friendlies is, teams usually arrange for a friendly match almost a year before the match is scheduled to take place. So football associations have to plan far ahead, which is one of Football Association of Malaysia’s (FAM) biggest faults. In a press conference for the Chonburi match, national Head Coach K. Rajagobal admitted that they had initially planned to play either Myanmar, Thailand or Laos, but the invitation was declined as it was only made a week before the match. One week? I mean, come on! Even Malaysian schools’ sports days are planned earlier than that!

And when by some miracle that a national team agrees to play Malaysia in a friendly, FAM went ahead and cancelled the match. In February, an ‘A’ match with Iraq was reduced to an unofficial match on FAM’s request (no matter, we lost the match 3-0 anyway). And in June, a series of friendly matches with Singapore was inexplicably cancelled so the team could go to Australia to play club sides. At first FAM tried deflecting the blame on the Singapore FA, but it was then revealed that it had been our FA’s fault in the first place.

But more infuriatingly, when it comes to these pointless matches against the European giants; Barcelona and Chelsea, the power that be will almost always succeed in securing these friendly ‘matches’ almost half a year before they take place; these matches that gain us no ranking points whatsoever. Misplaced priorities much?

It is doubtful that they even understand the importance of the ranking system and how it works, when Rajagopal himself casually said that “ranking isn’t important.” It is the complete opposite; it is of the utmost importance. It is not that the fans and media are upset at the friendly matches with club teams on its own; they are upset that FAM are more willing to allocate their time and resources on arranging friendly against clubs that carry no ranking points, than they are on arranging ‘A’ international matches that net these ranking points.

Okay, end of tirade. Told you it was going to be long-winded.

The Malayan Tigers drew with Thailand’s Chonburi FC 0-0.

However, a glimmer of hope was definitely seen during the recent Chelsea match. Of course the venue of the match; the Shah Alam Stadium was almost full, and it was blue with curiously Malaysian-looking Chelsea ‘fans’. But what was not immediately seen at Shah Alam, speaks volumes of Malaysian football fans’ collective realisation that Malaysian football is being had by our football authority. Yes Shah Alam was blue that day, but only because the more loyal yellow and black stripes-wearing crowd chose to give the match a miss altogether. The vocal Ultras Malaya have been giving this sort of matches the snub since last year; dubbing them ‘The Royal London Circus’ (it was Arsenal at that time). One day before the match, Malaysian players and team officials were given 100 tickets each so they could give it away to their family members, friends and fortunate fans. Hours before kickoff, tickets to the ‘match’ were sold outside the stadium for as low as RM10. Why? W as it because they were not selling well?

I myself was offered a free ticket by a friend, but I chose to stay home and catch up on the latest season of Arrested Development instead (not as good as the first three seasons, but still very good). But the most telling evidence was that Astro Arena was not able to telecast the match, as the agreement for Chelsea’s visit stipulated that the match could only be shown live on television if at least 80 per cent of the tickets were sold.

The organisers also shot themselves in the foot with the Malaysian media, when it was reported that one day before the match, members of the Malaysian press were turned away from a PR event while the British were given access to the team rather freely. Come on man, not cool. We can still speak and understand English over here. Remember English? The same language your grandparents used when they colonised us just a little over 50 years ago?

In addition to this, signs of change are already being observed, surprisingly from inside FAM itself. The recently appointed Secretary-general, Datuk Hamidin Amin had recently vowed to stop friendly matches with club teams, going as far as arranging a number of international friendly matches; to take place towards the end of 2013. Discussions are still on-going but I am crossing my fingers that this is not just FAM paying lip service to the fans.

The stadium wasn’t full for Malaysia XI vs Chelsea at Shah Alam.

To see a Malaysian side beat a European giant on the pitch is perhaps still a pipedream, but we can still beat them off the pitch, by not attending these matches. We did it to Chelsea, now let’s do better with Barcelona. However, it is not enough for us to simply not buy the tickets. We must make sure that we don’t accept free tickets if there are any, and change the channel if it is shown live on TV. We must show the sponsors and broadcasters that there is no money to be made from these circus matches. We must show FAM that we are only interested in attending ‘A’ international matches, and we must tell these European clubs to go get their easy paycheck somewhere else. How about Central Asia? And hasn’t the Middle East been considering putting airconditioning inside their stadiums? I’m sure nowadays it’s not as hot as it used to be over there. They have more money than us in South East Asia do, anyway.

Fol low Zulhilmi Zainal on ; ; ;

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