Stadium Bola Sepak Kuala Lumpur, Liga Super Malaysia
While European leagues were enjoying their winter breaks and January transfer windows, football fans in east Asia were savouring all the excitement that comes with the new football season. For 2018, for the first time, I got to experience the anticipation of the new kits, new signings, and new fixture lists in Malaysia.
Optimism was surprisingly high for the 2018 season. The Malaysian national team lost six of the eight games they played in 2017 and didn’t manage a single win. However, the country’s current crop of young players are giving locals hope of a brighter future. First, in July, the country’s U23 team qualified for the AFC U23 Championship. A month later the same group of players took silver on home soil at the Southeast Asian Games. Then, with the new season approaching, they became the first Southeast Asian team to qualify for the knockout stages of the AFC Championships, finishing ahead of Saudi Arabia and Jordan in their group.
Another reason for the pre-season positivity was the introduction of an ASEAN player quota, which permitted teams to sign a fifth foreigner provided they are from another Southeast Asian nation. That allowed Johor Darul Ta’zim to bring back Singaporean star Hariss Harun from his loan spell at Home United, while other notable imports were Lost Boyos favourite Chan Vathanaka of Cambodia (to Pahang) and promising Indonesian young players Evan Dimas and Ilham Armaiyn (both Selangor).
Vathanaka’s arrival meant I would definitely be keeping an eye on Pahang’s results, but I wasn’t sure which team I would choose to follow. Being my local teams, one of Kuala Lumpur or Selangor was the obvious choice, and, as fate would have it, they were playing each on the opening day of the season.
Kuala Lumpur FA vs Selangor FA
Matchday 1, February 4, 2018
Everyone I’ve spoken to about local football has been able to tell me exactly how many times Selangor have won the prestigious Malaysia Cup (it’s a record 33, by the way). Founded in 1936, Selangor FA have one of the longest and most successful histories of any Malaysian football team.
With a little more than 40 years of history, Kuala Lumpur FA are one of Malaysian football’s less storied teams. Before 2018, KL had spent just three of the last ten seasons in the Liga Super, even dropping down to the third tier in 2014. After winning the Liga Premier (Malaysia’s second tier) in 2017, KL’s return to the top flight set up the first Klang Valley Derby in the league since 2012. Selangor have tended to dominate this fixture, winning 21 of the 29 games that have taken place this century, and KL, as a newly-promoted team, would again be starting as underdogs.
After all the excitement of pre-season, it was now time for some first day nerves. While walking around IKEA on the morning of this fixture, people kept tweeting pictures of long queues at the ticket counter. Fortunately, KLFA Stadium was not too far away and my wife allowed me to leave her strolling around the Market Hall and go and buy tickets.
It seemed, however, I had been the victim of fake news, as there were no sign of any queues and tickets were readily available. I purchased three and headed home. After spending the afternoon at the aptly-named Magnificent Fish & Chips Shop and my favourite watering hole, TAPS Beer Bar, I was back on the Sungai-Buloh/Kajang MRT Line and heading to the stadium.
One of the great things about Malaysian football matches is the small village that gets erected around the ground. After picking up a fourth ticket, I spent some time walking around the stalls selling scarfs, shirts, and food, and indulged in a kebab and some fried noodles. With the rest of my group now in attendance, we headed in and took our seats in the main grandstand. The tickets had come at very reasonable 30RM (a little more than £5), but with all the gates open, the grandstand seemed accessible to everybody.
The teams lined up for the national anthem, with Kuala Lumpur in white with diagonal red stripes and Selangor in their PSG-inspired blue away kit (for my money, the best league has to offer this year).
Things started slowly, but on fifteen minutes, Selangor took the lead; Rufino Segovia, the Red Giants’ Spanish striker, met a cross from the right with a strong header. As the half went on, Selangor were looking the more comfortable and their pair of Indonesian signings looked like they had quickly settled in to Malaysian football; Evan Dimas probing from midfield and Ilham looking dangerous on the wing.
In the second half, KL came into the game more. Brazilian midfielder Paulo Josue had a couple of chances from inside the box and saw a powerful long-range effort crash back off the bar. The best chance of an equaliser fell to striker Guilherme da Paula. The Brazilian scored for fun in the Liga Premier last year, but glanced a simple header wide from six yards. From then on, he seemed to take it on himself to score, dribbling and shooting at every opportunity. The equaliser, however, did not come and in injury time Rufino added a second from close range.
It had been a decent game and good start to the new season. There were plenty of good players, with Rufino in particular standing out. The fans of both teams were also very good. Most of the stadium was in the red and yellow of Selangor and they were much the louder of the two groups. However, I was none the wiser about which team I would end up supporting.
Full-time: Kuala Lumpur 0 – 2 Selangor
Selangor FA vs Melaka United
Matchday 2, February 7, 2018
FMLLP, the body that organises the Liga Super, were obviously eager not to lose any early season momentum by organising the first three rounds of fixtures across just eight days. That meant I should have been able to quickly get my second fix of Malaysian football, but there were a couple of potential obstacles.
Firstly, Selangor were homeless. The floodlights at Selayang Stadium, their home ground in 2017, were deemed unsuitable and the new season would require a new home. The national stadium at Bukit Jalil was their next choice but that request was turned down by the Football Assiciation of Malaysia. Next up, their suggestion of ground-sharing KL’s stadium was rebuffed by the capital side’s chairman, citing that they already had one tenant in the shape of Liga Premier team, PDRM (the team of the Royal Malaysian Police).
However, the day after the Klang Valley Derby, it was announced that PDRM’s home opener had been moved to Hang Jebat Stadium (where I briefly met Stan Collymore last year) and Selangor’s game versus Melaka United would take place at Kuala Lumpur Stadium on the Wednesday.
Now I just had to worry about work. I was listed as a cover teacher, so if anyone was absent I would be in the classroom until half past nine; thirty minutes after a kick-off. Luckily, we had a full house, so, after some food at the Indian restaurant next door, I was able to leave the office with just enough time to make the start of the match.
Although my wait for a Grab car was almost double the suggested 13 minutes, ‘the jams’ weren’t too bad for the tail-end of a midweek rush hour. My driver engaged in tales of the good old days of Malaysian football, the 1970s and 1980s when the national team twice qualified for the Olympics. Having recently finished John Duerden’s Lions and Tigers, I was able to impress him with a few names from the era.
Armed with Sunday’s knowledge, I went for the 15RM ticket and entered at the gate where Selangor’s loudest fans had been stationed for the the derby. I was surprised, then, to find myself in a sea of green Melaka United fans (and one exquisite example of the Manchester United 1992 blue and white specked away shirt). Again, it was possible to walk around the ground, so I slowly made my way to the opposite corner and sat down just in time to see Rufino curl a shot with the outside of his right foot into the bottom corner of the net.
Twenty minutes later, Melaka’s Tiago Gomes curled a delightful free-kick over the wall to equalise. The goal certainly gave the Portuguese midfielder, who experienced the Championship with Blackpool and La Liga with Hercules, plenty of confidence, and soon he was playing a back-heeled pass on the edge of his box and shooting (abysmally) from the halfway line.
The game was end-to-end and it looked like there would be more goals. Selangor came closest as, with half-time approaching, Amri cut into the box from the right and went down under a soft challenge. Rufino stepped up, but missed the penalty and it remained 1-1 at the break.
Despite wearing number 11, Melaka’s goalkeeper showed early in the second half that he was no outfield player. Under pressure from Syahmi Safari, the goalkeeper’s clearance was kicked straight at the young winger, and he rolled the ball into the empty net. A little over ten minutes later, Rufino had his fourth goal of the season, sending a left-footed volley into the bottom corner following a poor clearance.
The Selangor fans were enjoying themselves and going through their full repertoire of songs. There were chants to the tune of Despacito, Wavin’ Flag, and even the Popeye theme. In injury-time, as Melaka chased a goal, Evan Dimas broke quickly from midfield and teed up Syahmi to score his second and complete the rout and launch more singing.
It had been a great game. Selangor were worthy winners, but, despite the scoreline, Melaka had contributed much to the fun.
Selangor 4 – 1 Melaka United
Kuala Lumpur FA vs Johor Darul Ta’zim
Matchday 3, February 10
Like dominant teams in every country, Johor Darul Ta’zim seem to split opinions among Malaysian football fans. The champions of the last four seasons have no doubt raised the bar in the Liga Super, but some worry their success is lowering competitiveness. Others suggest that their success has created a sense of arrogance, which occasionally manifests itself on the club’s social media accounts (although I quite enjoy their daily ‘Good morning to JDT family all around the world’ tweets).
I saw them play against Selangor in my first game in Malaysia last year. Despite losing, JDT played well and sealed the league title. Their main fans group, Boys of Straits, were some of the best I’ve seen in Asia. So, while I haven’t yet made my own mind up about JDT, I was looking forward to watching them play again.
Their big 2018 signing is Luciano Figueroa. The former Argentina international- and one time Birmingham City player- was part of the JDT team that won the 2015 AFC Cup, Asia’s Europa League equivalent, and has come out of retirement to return to the team. They’ve also strengthened by signing La’Vere Corbin Ong from Go Ahead Eagles in the Netherlands and promising defender Adam Nor Azlin from Selangor.
The game was on another workday, but, although I was based on the opposite side of the city for the day, I would already be on the right MRT line and be finished with sufficient time to get to the ground. In my panic on the opening day, I had accidentally bought three tickets online for this fixture thinking they were for the Selangor game, so I even had enough time to stroll around the stalls and stock up on chicken kebabs.
KL had also lost their second game, going down 2-0 to fellow promoted team Negeri Sembilan, while JDT had won both their opening games. Interestingly, only four of JDT’s starting XI for this third fixture were born in Malaysia. A feature of their recruitment has been dual nationality Malaysians, such as playmaker Natxo Insa (Spanish) and new signing Corbin Ong (Canadian). Also, Argentine striker Gonzalo Carbrera is currently playing on an Iraqi passport, so he could play alongside Figueroa and another Argentine Jorge Pereyra Diaz in attack.
Unsurprisingly, it was JDT who dominated the early part of the game, with Insa and captain Safiq Rahim orchestrating things. Diaz was also a continual threat with his dribbling on the left. One feature of JDT’s early games has been the long throws of Corbin Ong, with the new signing being described as the Liga Super’s own Rory Delap, and it was clear early on what a threat he might pose.
KL did create a couple of opportunities for Josue and Akbarov, but most of the chances were going JDT’s way. Figueroa had an overhead kick saved and later was not on Diaz’s wavelength when he cleverly squared the ball back. Diaz had chances of his own, but was twice denied by Effandi in the KL goal.
Then, as the stadium announcer was informing spectators about injury time, KL’s three Brazilians combined to open the scoring. Guilherme played the ball to Juninho and his one-touch pass set up Josue. It was KL’s first goal of the season.
At half-time, the light rain that had been falling suddenly became a huge downpour, but the pitch continued to look okay as the substitutes warmed up. Five minutes into the second half, the rain had not eased and the first puddles were starting to show. Safiq Rahim had to kick away a lot of surface water in order to take a corner, while the ball got stuck in a puddle as KL tried to free Guilherme.
Things were becoming farcical as players needed to flick the ball up to get it moving, so it was no surprise when the referee took the players off the field on 56 minutes. A few people left immediately, but the vast majority hung around in hope. I waited about 20 minutes, but, with the rain showing no signs of letting up, I had my second Lost Boyos match abandonment (although more usual circumstances than the first).
With 15,000+ people sat around staring at their phones, I couldn’t get an internet connection to call a Grab and my phone battery was getting very low. It eventually went dead as the JDT team bus went passed me, but fortunately I had managed to get a taxi by then, and he was in the pack behind the bus.
It was a slightly disappointing end to an enjoyable week of football, but the evening had been fun. JDT again looked good and their travelling fans were excellent once again. More importantly, KL had finally scored and were just 33 minutes from a first victory.
Kuala Lumpur 1 – 0 JDT (match abandoned after 56 minutes)
By the time I got home, it had been decided the final 33 minutes would be played the following afternoon at 4pm. After three trips to the stadium in seven days, it would have cost me a marriage to make a fourth in eight days, especially for just 33 minutes.
All reports are that that final half an hour played out in the same way as the 57 minutes I had seen; JDT knocking on the door and KL resisting. And resist they did, hanging on for a shock win.
I enjoyed the opening week of Malaysian football and enjoyed watching both KL and Selangor. Over the coming weeks, I’ll hopefully see more of both. Perhaps it was the experience of seeing Hanoi FC uproot themselves to Saigon, but when it comes to choosing one or the other, I’ll just let that happen naturally.
Good: food and shirt stalls; ‘ultras’ groups and their singing; Selangor’s away kit; Rufino Segovia; public transport; goals