Kuantan FA vs Pulau Pinang, April 10, 2018
UKM vs Sabah FA, April 24, 2018
Stadium Majlis Perbandaran Selayang, Liga Premier Malaysia
As introductions go, my first match after moving to Malaysia is one that will live long in the memory: a full stadium; a wonder strike; a veteran coming off the bench to change the game; the league champions crowned.
The stadium was Stadium Majlis Perbandaran Selayang, or Stadium MPS, for a match between historical giants Selangor FA and the modern dominant force Johor Darul Ta’zim. The first goal was a stunning top-corner effort from Natxo Insa, a Spanish-born now Malaysian international midfielder, before 36-year old Mohd Amri Yahyah arrived to score one and set up another to turn things around for Selangor. The defeat, however, did not stop JDT ending the night as champions.
That was nine months ago and, while there’s still much to learn, my knowledge about Malaysian football has improved. For example, I can tell you why Selangor aren’t playing home games at Stadium MPS this season. I think I know why this match between Kuantan (228km away) and Penang (324km away) was being played on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. I know why a delegation from Felcra FC were present to scout their upcoming Liga Premier opposition, even though I’d seen them lose their promotion play-off in December.
Firstly, Selangor were forced out of Stadium MPS (eventually ending up at KLFA Stadium) because of the stadium’s floodlights. However, Liga Premier sides Kuantan FA and UKM have braved the higher temperatures and regular tropical storms to play home games there in the afternoon before the lights become necessary. That Kuantan, a city on Malaysia’s east coast, are playing there is due to the ownership of the club switching to Marcerra United, a third-tier team, who relocated the team to the capital.
The move was a good one for me. My days off currently are Mondays and Tuesdays and Liga Premier games regularly take place on those days, so the more teams in and around KL, the more chances I’d have to get to a game.
Before my first visit of 2018 to Stadium MPS, I headed to Desa Park City. This kind of suburban, semi-gated community, described on its own website as “a throwback to days of yore where being a part of a community with a strong sense of place was synonymous with good wholesome family values,” is increasingly commonplace here. The values I had made the 20-minute taxi ride in search of, however, were those of the world’s craft brewers.
While craft beer is becoming easier to find around KL, the choices are still somewhat limited. TAPS at Plaza Arkadia, the shopping centre located at Desa Park City, offers a larger variety of beer than anybody else with 30 different brews on tap. They also had some very reasonably-priced meal deals, which meant they had the biggest lunch crowd in the otherwise quiet shopping centre. I went for the fried rice and pork belly, washed down with a Punk IPA.
As I enjoyed a second and a third beer, I noticed I was actually the only person taking advantage of the vast beer selection. It was Tuesday afternoon, I guess. Three was enough, and it was another 20-minute taxi to the ground.
I took a seat in the main stand in the section marked for Kuantan fans, where there was just one young fan in a replica shirt and a few people who seemed to be family members or friends of players. Penang were the more interesting of the two sides for me, though. The 3-time Malaysian champions and 4-time Malaysia Cup winners had some interesting individuals in their team sheet. At the heart of defence they had Ugo Ukah, an Italian-born, one-time Nigeria international, and the ex-QPR man was outstanding for Selangor in the aforementioned win over JDT. They had also signed Ken Ilsø, a Danish striker who scored 15 goals in 18 top-flight games in 2017, and Kang Seung-Jo, a South Korean I had already seen score for two separate K-League clubs. Sadly, the team did not contain the most famous Malaysian footballer of recent years, Puskás Award winner Mohd Faiz Subri.
Unlike my first visit, this second has not lived long in the memory. As I begun to write this post almost a month later since I attended the game. Either I did not make any notes on this match or they have been lost and I now find myself struggling to remember anything of interest happening on the field.
Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to speak to the group sat behind me, who I’m sure took more from the game than me. The group consisted of one clearly foreign man and several locals. From the conversations- in English- I had guessed they were from Felcra FC, who I had seen lose a FAM League (Malaysia’s third tier) Play-off towards the end of last year. Victors Sime Darby FC, however, turned down their Liga Premier place and Felcra were granted their spot.
Any notes that group made were evidently more useful than mine, as three days later Felcra defeated Penang 3-1. If they had also compiled a report on Kuantan, however, it would prove to have been a waste of time.
This match was to be the club’s last. The players of Kuantan had gone unpaid for several months, making the commitment they showed to fight for a 0-0 draw in this game all the more remarkable. The players refused to play their next fixture and once it became apparent the situation was unlikely to improve, the team was withdrawn from the league.
Full-time Kuantan FA 0-0 Penang FA
After the game, I got my Grab to drop me off at Changkat Bukit Bintang, one of KL’s more bar-laden streets. I was hoping to find somewhere showing JDT’s AFC Cup tie with Indonesia’s Persija. Thankfully, The Magnificent Fish and Chip Shop had the game on. The food was, well, magnificent, as was the performance of Persija’s Marko Simic (proving I was correct to compare him to Thomas Mueller a few years ago).
Simic scored all four goals in a heavy defeat for JDT. That meant they would need to defeat Vietnam’s SLNA in the final round of group games to have any chance of progressing. That game would also be played on a Tuesday night, about fours from KL in Johor Bahru.
My idea to attend that game never got beyond the mental planning stage, and, on the day of that game, I instead found myself in another craft beer bar, in another suburban shopping centre, before another trip to Stadium MPS. The bar this time was Ales and Lagers, a small bottle shop located in a print shop in the Publika Shopping Centre. They did not open until 3pm, so there was just enough time for two beers, before another short Grab ride to the stadium.
To mix things up, I sat in the away section of the main stand this week. This would be my second time watching Sabah play, following my unsuccessful search for Rhys Weston some five years ago. The Rhinos would enjoy decent support, presumably mostly made up of local migrants rather than people who had flown over from Borneo.
While Sabah don’t currently have any ex-Welsh internationals in their squad, there were some interesting individuals. In defence, they could count on an African Cup of Nations winner in Francis Kasonde, who had been part of the Zambian squad that famously won in 2012. In attack, they would be looking for goals from Héctor Ramos, who is not only the record goalscorer in Puerto Rico’s history, but also his country’s leading cap holder.
Two South Korean midfielders were at the heart of most the early action, though. UKM’s Nam Se-In gave the hosts the lead near the half-hour mark, while Lee Kil-Hoon wasted decent chances for Sabah either side of his compatriot’s opener.
In stark contrast to the stereotypical bustle of the Koreans, UKM’s Radouane Zerzouri was a real joy to watch. His tricks, flicks and nutmegs made him the standout performer, but Sabah managed to contain him enough to keep the gap at one goal at halftime.
This was not to last, however. Nam scored his second with a half-volley from the edge of the box and Zerzouri hit the bar a free-kick. Nam then turned provider as Kipson Athuheire added a third goal with about 20 minutes remaining.
And what a dramatic 20 minutes it turned out to be, as Sabah’s fans fury switched from their own players, to the opposition players, to the referee. First, Héctor Ramos scored a diving header to buoy the travelling support. Not long after came the first of many bouts of cramp among the UKM players.
Their frequency increased even further when, with a little under ten minutes remaining, Justin Samaan was beat the UKM defence to a second ball about 25 yards from goal and struck a powerful, first-time shot into the top corner. UKM’s goalkeeper was so affected that even he began suffering cramp in those final ten minutes (goalkeeper cramp is oddly Southeast Asian affliction).
The time-wasting worked and UKM hung on, while the noisy Sabah fans’ feelings about these tactics and how they had been allowed to get away with them were very clear.
Full-time UKM 3-2 Sabah
For me, this game, with its goals and drama, was the perfect antodote to the previous drab affair and justified my decision to persist with my own solo Tuesday Club project. The decision was further reaffirmed when I returned to Changkat to join friends and colleagues for a victorious evening of pub-quizzing.
The JDT-SLNA was showing in neighbouring bars. It also finished 3-2, but I was very happy with the choice I had made.
Good: Tuesday afternoon football; Radouane Zerzouri; a 3-2 thriller; Justin Samaan’s wonderstrike; suburban craft beer bars; pub quiz wins
Bad: having to take taxis everywhere; Kuantan 0-0 Penang; players not getting paid