The last few years have been a boon for Malaysian fans of the English Premier League with a number of clubs making high-profile visits to the country.
The likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have targeted the country for its growing economy and supporter base with a passionate interest in their club.
The peak may well have come in 2011 when Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool arrived within a few days of each other ensuing the trains out to Bukit Jalil Stadium were full late into the evenings as the faithful trooped out for the chance to spot their heroes at training sessions or the games themselves.
The 2015 season is due to be another year to remember with Liverpool to return and Tottenham Hotspur to make its first visit since 1979.
Tottenham was especially excited to be making the visit, saying the game against a Malaysia XI “will present an opportunity for the club to further engage with its well-established fanbase in the region through a number of activities including meet and greet sessions with current and former players.”
While other clubs have seen Southeast Asia as a major opportunity, Tottenham has prepared to focus on other areas such as China and the US. So, the game in Kuala Lumpur will be seen as an opportunity to both connect with supporters there and, in business-school speak, build the brand.
But while sponsors, clubs and organizers gush about the presence of Tottenham and Liverpool, others are less happy.
In 2007 the Football Association of Malaysia arranged for Manchester United to play a high profile friendly during the English league’s close season, a move it no doubt thought would be popular among local fans. Unfortunately, the FAM seemed to have overlooked the fact it was hosting the AFC Asian Cup, only the second-largest football tournament in the world.
Despite opposition from the Asian Football Confederation, the FAM, supported by the government seeking a short term popularity boost, stuck to its guns.
With the national team preparing for its biggest event in years the controversy raged with many Malaysian fans angered at the FAM’s prioritizing of a meaningless friendly over serious competition.
In the end and after some pressure from FIFA Manchester United’s visit was cancelled.
This year there are no such distractions but with much soul searching within the game over a perceived lack of direction in the corridors of power the news the Premier League pair are on their way is not being well received in all quarters with one fan group, the Ultras Malaya, calling for supporters to boycott the game and launching the #SayNoToCircusGame campaign.
A poor showing at the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Football Federation Championships at the end of last season coupled with a failure to make progress in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers or the World Cup Qualifiers has angered fans especially at a time when new money has poured into the domestic game allowing clubs like Johor Darul Takzim and Pahang to reach new levels domestically and in the AFC Cup.
Alfadli Awaludin is one of the prime movers behind Ultras Malaya, a group of supporters from different clubs who came together to ratchet up the atmosphere at Malaysia games and he is definitely not impressed with Tottenham or Liverpool coming to town.
“The game does not bring any benefit to local football,” says Alfadli. “It does not benefit us in terms of FIFA ranking, besides it will only be of advantage to a few individuals who are using our national team to gain profit for themselves.
“The game will tarnish our national pride as it brings down the level of a national team to club level.”
While Malaysia may have lost to Thailand in the final of last year’s AFF Cup Final, their supporters won many plaudits not just for their color and their passion on the terraces, but the respect they afforded the Thais when they lifted the trophy.
Unlike many fans around the world following a loss in a final the Ultras Malaya stayed behind after the final whistle to show their support to their players as well as honoring the victors.
As a group dedicated to promoting fair play in football, they take exception to what they see as meaningless friendlies.
“A circus is an exhibition performance being held by the circus operator to gain profit, by using animals/clowns to put on a show to make the paying crowd happy, without any benefit to the animals/clowns who had put up the show,” explained Alfadli.
“Therefore an exhibition football match without any benefit to the team and is solely money-oriented is a circus game.”
It remains to be seen how effective the boycott will be. You are never far from a replica Liverpool shirt on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and there is an official retail outlet in Bukit Bintang offering the keen Kopite all the gear he can afford.
If you take away the home support, especially the vociferous home support, you will end up with a stadium cheering for the foreign team and apathy towards the home side.
The moneyed Premier League players may not notice and nor will the thousands from across Malaysia and no doubt neighboring Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia but followers of local club sides will and what will that image do for the perception of the local league?
Football associations are charged with developing football within their national borders.
Liverpool and Tottenham will come to Malaysia for their own benefit and of course they are perfectly within their right to cash in where they think they can.
But as Malaysia contemplates the road to the World Cup in 2018 the question for Alfadli and other fans remaings does their game benefit?
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