In Malaysia we have had many dominant state teams in the past. Whether it be the old Selangor team who used to terrorize defences across the country with their bright attacking line-up, or the more recent treble winning Kedah squad from 2007. But there is something that these sides didn’t achieve during their prime years, that is winning the AFC Cup.
Those who have stepped foot into Kelantanese soil would tell you all about the passion they have for their local side. In a country that is dominated by headlines from European football, Kelantan can be recognised as a state that is constantly gripped by local football fever. Flags and banners portraying Khairul Fahmi Che Mat or Norshahrul Idlan Talaha are virtually omnipresent, while the local community can be found passionately donning their Red Warriors outfit far and wide, a sight to behold if you’re not used to local Malaysian football.
Kelantan have been a blueprint for success in the Malaysian Super League for quite some time now. Once a minnow among other state football teams, their rise in stature been brought about by the arrival of Tan Sri Annuar Musa to the Kelantan FA throne.
A 6-0 demolition over Perak at the Sultan Muhammad IV stadium was more than just a fitting title-winning match. It depicted their dominance over the league this season. It displayed their supremacy as being a class above the other teams in the Super League. Perhaps it was a signal to announce the dawn of a new horizon in Malaysian football?
In the aftermath of their successful 2011 Super League campaign which saw them crowned as champions, Kelantan were regarded as favourites for the title this year. And they lived up to their billing despite several off the field controversies. Peter Butler left the team in February after an apparent spat with Tan Sri Annuar Musa, or TSAM as he is fondly known as. Bojan Hodak was drafted in as a replacement and the Croatianhas been a revelation for the club so far, maintaining the same regime within the team.
The Malaysian Super League can be a very unpredictable league with the fortunes of teams altering dramatically over the course of the campaign, and consistency being a niggling issue for many clubs. But the Kelantan faithful will look back and cite their ‘never-say-die’ attitude as being the catalyst for their triumph this year.
“The reason we are here is because my players have character and a winning mentality. This is what separates Kelantan from the other teams,” Bojan Hodak enthused prior to their FA Cup final clash against Sime Darby. Such a statement can be demonstrated by Kelantan’s away encounter against PKNS in May where everything seemed sloppy for the Red Warriors and the match appeared destined to end in a stalemate. But they kept on pushing and as a result of their perseverance, they exploded in the final 10 minutes to score three goals and seal three vital points. The winning mentality has certainly been instilled within them and it has proved to bring energy to the team this season.
It is interesting to note that the pillars of strength behind this side are the old guns. Badri Radzi has been a significant figure and his influence in midfield has led to several key chances being carved out for the forwards. Then there is Indra Putra who remains a excellent star of the team despite his relatively old age. Their defensive stability is also a key strength of the team with only 16 goals conceded in 24 games so far – a record that translates into their superiority over other teams.
With the Super League and FA Cup in the bag, Bojan Hodak will undoubtedly be setting his eyes on the prestigious Malaysia Cup, which is scheduled to start in September. But perhaps there is a chance to make history. Selangor remain the only side to have progressed to the AFC Cup quarter finals, back in 2006. No disrespect towards the Red Giants of back then but it is my opinion that Bojan Hodak’s men are certainly better equipped both mentally and physically to progress further.
Kelantan are scheduled to take on Iraqi powerhouse Arbil FC, who were semi-finalists in the competition last year. Make no mistake, it will definitely be a tough ask for the Red Warriors. Still, there is absolutely no justification to count Kelantan out of this tie. Football often proves itself to be an unpredictable sport. Therefore it is surely possible that a Kelantan team, who have been turning on the style with their passion and belief all year long, can grab a victory against Arbil and be spurred on to the semi finals with greater confidence. The road ahead will be a tough one indeed, but if they can somehow make it all the way into the final, then the possibilities are endless.
The chance to win a Malaysian treble is mesmerizing enough, but can this team dream of adding a continental trophy to make it a quadruple? After all, Kelantan FA is the dawn of a new horizon in Malaysian football.