Football: Kicking LionsXII out of Malaysian league helps no one

The LionsXII, with PM Lee Hsien Loong, celebrating winning the Malaysian Super League in 2013.
The LionsXII, with PM Lee Hsien Loong, celebrating winning the Malaysian Super League in 2013.PHOTO: ST FILE

Tuesday night's Malaysia Cup quarter-final first leg underlined all that was good about Singapore's involvement, with a big crowd in Kuantan watching the Republic's best like Safuwan Baharudin and Faris Ramli duelling with Pahang's imported players, including Dickson Nwakaeme, Matias Conti and Zesh Rehman.

Former Melbourne City utility player Safuwan scored a late away goal to give the visitors a glimmer of hope in the two-legged tie after Nigeria's Dickson and Argentina's Conti had dominated in an attacking masterclass.

Yet a couple of hours after the final whistle, it was effectively announced that the game was almost certainly the LionsXII's last on Malaysian soil with the news that the Singaporean outfit would not be included in domestic competitions from next year onwards.

With Pahang winning 4-1 at home, Saturday's second leg at Jalan Besar Stadium is likely to bring down the curtain on LionsXII's four-year reunion with Malaysian football. Only a near miracle would see Fandi Ahmad's side advance to the Cup semi-finals, prolonging their involvement in the last domestic competition of the year.

The 12 members from the executive committee of Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) voted unanimously on Tuesday night against continuing the Singaporean team's involvement.

 

The announcement may have come as a surprise to Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Sources tell ESPN FC that high-ranking officials of FAS and FAM spoke as recently as last week and there was no indication that LionsXII would not be involved next year.

The increasingly high cost of travel and accommodation for Malaysian teams visiting from north of the Causeway - the ringgit has declined more than 20 per cent over the past year to above RM3 against the Singdollar- and the reluctance of the FAS to cover travel expenses is believed to be behind the decision. On top of that, away teams believe that the bouncier, synthetic surface of Jalan Besar gives the speedy LionsXII side an unfair advantage.

Also making Singapore's involvement in the Malaysia Super League less attractive is how FAS independently sold the TV rights of LionsXII matches instead of keeping them within the larger pool.

But surely this is a decision that will hurt both Malaysian and Singaporean football, given the interest and enjoyment generated since a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two associations was signed in 2011 to create an arrangement of mutual benefit.

Malaysia's Harimau Muda B played in Singapore's S-League as part of the deal.

It revived the old rivalry of the 1980s and 90s when the likes of LionsXII coaches, past and present, V. Sundramoorthy and Fandi Ahmad were playing for Singapore against Malaysian state sides in packed and colourful arenas. True, the passion was not quite the same two decades later, but matches between LionsXII and big teams like Selangor, Johor and Terengganu usually had an edge to them.

"I will miss playing the LionsXII because they forced you to work hard for a result," Pahang utility player Zesh Rehman, a former English Premier League defender, told ESPN FC.

"They added a healthy rivalry to the MSL and some good fun with banter between the fans. More importantly they provided a quality team to the MSL who held their own. They even won some trophies so they proved they were no pushovers."

LionsXII, who won the 2013 MSL title and 2015 Malaysia FA Cup, were certainly no pushovers, even though they were not allowed the four imported players of the other MSL clubs. The way they upset star-studded Kelantan in May's FA Cup final, before 90,000 fans at the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, will long live in the memory.

Potentially, LionsXII could feature in the inaugural Asean Super League (ASL), which is due to start in August next year. But with major question marks about the participating teams and the exact format, the competition is far from confirmed. Why would the ASL prove any more popular than the poorly-supported AFC Cup, which already features South-east Asian teams?

It means that S-League clubs are likely to be flooded with LionsXII players, scrambling to get contracts in place for the 2016 season, creating a true buyer's market. It could ultimately rejuvenate Singapore's domestic competition, but the nation's best players can develop better by plying their trade in the stronger MSL.

You can be sure that some Malaysian clubs will be looking to poach the likes of Safuwan, Faris, Khairul Amri and Sahil Suhaimi, as Singapore internationals contemplate a return to sparsely populated suburban arenas like Jurong West Stadium and Hougang Stadium.

Just nine months ago, Safuwan was playing before more than 40,000 fans in the A-League's Melbourne derby as a loan player for Melbourne City.

And the MSL, which will be privatised for the 2016 season, will surely be a less attractive commercial proposition without a team from the lucrative Singapore market.

As much as LionsXII presented FAM the occasional headache - as a foreign team they were not eligible to compete in the AFC Champions League after winning the 2013 MSL title - they provided an invaluable layer to Malaysian domestic competitions.

Having LionsXII in Malaysia was not perfect, but there were certainly more pros than cons. Saturday night football at Jalan Besar Stadium, without a visiting Malaysian team, just will not be the same.

jason.dasey@espn.com

Jason Dasey is senior editor of the South-east Asia edition of ESPN FC, Singapore's most popular football website (formerly ESPN Soccernet).Twitter: @ESPNFC