Dez Corkhill talks about traveling nomadic pro footballers and how tough it can be for them to play in Malaysia - and any other part of the world
By Dez Corkhill
As the fun and gossip of "who's coming?, who's staying?, who's going?" starts as the Malaysian football April transfer window kicks in, I ask you to stop - just for a moment - to contemplate the effect of such rumours, gossip and conjectures on those who are on the receiving end of the speculation. The players.
I used to hold the rather romantic notion that being a nomadic professional footballer must be one of the most satisfying jobs in the world. A little bit insecure, perhaps, but ultimately satisfying. That view has changed over the last decade insecurity, pressure and intolerable expectation is placed on the shoulders of "the foreign player" - particularly if they are a striker. What changed my mind was the way that former Johor FA midfield/striker, Milan Blagojevic suffered when he was signed by Singapore side, Geylang United in 2004.
Suffering what turned out to be a career ending injury very soon after signing for then S-League runners-up, he was legally eased out of the club, though with very little humanity. Here was a player used to life as an International in Australia suddenly left to fend for himself, a long way from home and with his career and his knee in tatters. He was - and is - a good guy. It was heart-breaking and very educational to see him go through what he did. For most foreign players, they are simply a commodity.
Fast-forward nine seasons, and move north of the Causeway, and we find that of 22 foreign players registered at the start of the season in the Malaysia Super League, eight - at the last count - have either been released or replaced having had 11 league games, or less, to make an impression with what is still their new team. A much-honoured, high profile Spanish import has decided to leave these shores of his own account, another two have their career hanging by a thread, and who knows what is going on with Patrick Wleh.
Add the scenario where Lebanese International defender Ramez Dayoub was released, understandably - but with little emotion - when banned by the Lebanese FA for match-fixing (a charge Dayoub has vigorously denied), and the report that his replacement, Peter Chrappan, is also rumoured to be facing a threat to his position, and we have a grand total of 11 - or half - of the foreign players in danger of ending their association with their teams after a dozen - or less - games to impress.
Francis Forkey Doe has been one of the better perfoming imports in the Super League this season.
It is the silly season, so, until the deals are done, let me put in an aside that things can change very quickly. This article asks the reader to consider the human trauma of silly season to those involved. No doubt this article adds to some of that pain, but the intention is to ask readers to think of the people impacted - and what effect it has on their career, and their character.
From being lauded on signing day, to being isolated and left to fend for yourself when a contract ends is an immensely traumatic condition for any person to be put through. And in Malaysia, you can't just swap teams. It's succeed instantly, achieve great things, or leave the country.
The revelation that Daniel Guiza will be leaving Darul Takzim is a real blow to both Darul Takzim, and the league. Differing reports as to why he is supposed to be leaving have emerged, but the league needed, and needs players such as Guiza to thrive. He's the biggest name of the silly season departures. But not the only one. Felda United have parted company with the Lebanese International, Mohammed Ghaddar. He is injured and, rather, as a lame horse might be put down, so the professional foreign striker has served his purpose if he is lame.
You can understand the business side of “carrying” an expensive passenger, and the pressure on the coach to win at all costs, but as a humanitarian way to treat a person, it is pretty brutal. It means that even with a player as talented as Ghaddar, there is just no leeway given to the foreign striker. No wonder some drive such a hard bargain in the salary stakes.
Prior to the Guiza news, the biggest name to end their association with Malaysian football prematurely was his team-mate at Darul Takzim - Simone Del Nero. Of all those released, this is perhaps the most surprising as his interplay with Guiza and Norshahrul has made Darul Takzim arguably the most entertaining team in the League. I have no idea what his "KPI" was, but he has never been a renowned goal scorer in his career, so to expect him to score a hatful of goals was unrealistic. It certainly wasn't realistic to expect a former Serie A player to calmly accept a demotion to Premier league Johor FA.
It is understandable if a foreign striker doesn't score many goals that his employers will lose patience. But to give a player 10 games - or less - is simply brutal. Think back to Peter Crouch's start at Liverpool when it took him 19 games to score his first goal, or John Aldridge who needed 20 starts at international level for the Republic of Ireland before he found his scoring boots. Patience was the key for those players, and it's fair to say that they weren't too shabby on the goal-scoring front after their drought.
But patience has run dry pretty quickly for another Republic of Ireland International, Caleb Folan. T-Team's much travelled striker endured a scoreless first half to the season that has saw him released from his contract. Never mind that he played much of the time with injury, and that his team-mates were a hastily assembled collection of players from Presidents Cup and Premier league. Instant judgment.
Daniel Guiza has played his last game for Johor Darul Takzim against Selangor.
Kelantan's Keita Mandjou played against Sarawak. It could be his last game and he couldn't be saved by a scoring run of four goals in three games. Even when he was scoring, the Guinean earned the critical wrath of his coach, Bojan Hodak. Reputation as a former top scorer of the Super League counted for nothing for a team defending a hat-trick of crowns, particularly now Dickson Nwakoeme has made such an instant impact in the AFC Cup. How different it might have been had he scored just before half time in the Charity Shield against ATM on January 5th. How the view of the team and fans would have changed? How his own confidence might have soared. Commentating for Astro Arena at that game, I vividly remember thinking that the moment of that missed opportunity could be a critical moment for Mandjou.
Argentine striker Emanuel de Porras came from Indonesia to help a reshaped Negeri Sembilan. He came having scored goals throughout his career in Argentina, Italy, Uruguay and Indonesia. But, despite being a willing worker, he couldn't find the back of the net. Alan Shearer once went 21 MONTHS without scoring for England, and yet was trusted by coach, Terry Venables, to play at Euro 96. Whilst not saying De Porras is as good as Shearer was, there has been no such sympathy for De Porras who saw his contract end rather earlier than anticipated as Negeri slumped at the bottom of the table - as many predicted they would! Instant success, or buenos dias, senor.
And so the list goes on. Perak's French midfielder, Karim Rouaini struggled with injury, and was released having started- and scored – just once for the Seladangs. Injured? Au revoir, monsieur. Same for Helmi Lousaieff at PKNS. Injury is an occupational hazard, but one - as Lousaiff discovered - means that his contract isn't being renewed. That one was a surprise.
Pahang's new striking partnership of Mohammed Borji and Niko Kleckarovski had barely 45-minutes to get to grips with the Super League before they were unceremoniously taken off at half time against Darul Takzim. It proved to be a good move for Pahang as they won 3-2 from 2-down, but Borji and Kleckarovski wallowed on the subs bench ever since. Kleckarovski had a goal wrongly disallowed in the first half against Darul Takzim. Would it have been a different story for him if it had counted? The big Macedonian joins an unhealthily long list of half-season players in Malaysia’s top flight. The ever-cheerful and enthusiastic Moroccan, Borji, gave some cameo performances off the bench, but his days in Kuantan look numbered as well.
The 12 named above - should they all depart - join a growing list of half-season or one-season foreigners in Malaysia since the ban on foreign players ended. Think back to last year, and the likes of what I thought were good value players such as Mikael Antoine Currier at Felda, Arthuro and Fernando Abreu in Johor; Bojan Petric and Baiano up on the East Coast in Terengganu's two teams; Albert Bodjongo and Mohammed Safi in the North-west; Kalle Sone at Sarawak, Brendan Gan and Michael Baird at Sabah, and Bosko Balaban, of course, at Selangor. All gone in the twinkling of an eye, though Balaban and Gan may well be on their way back for a second spell in the pressure cooker.
There’s a real human element to consider about each release or sacking. Of the expendable 11, six were playing in Malaysia for the first time, of whom three (Guiza, Simone Del Nero and Mohammed Borji) were coming to play in South East Asia for the first time. There is a need to acclimatise to a new country, new climate, new team-mates, new coach, new food and living conditions, for many, a new language and for all some cultural and domestic changes. Matches being stopped for prayers is pretty unique in the of world football, as are the 8.45pm kick off times. In many circumstances foreign players are isolated and very probably lonely. Read the tragic book “A life too short” about former German international goalkeeper, Robert Enke to get a view on how stressful and lonely a footballer's life away from your home can be, and how depressing rejection can be for a player.
Rumour has it that Milan Baros may soon play his football in the Malaysian Super League.
So, spare a humanitarian thought if you feel your team's foreign signing isn't at his best. Even after his stellar debut season for Terengganu last year, Selangor’s new signing, Francis Forkey Doe, was under pressure early in his Shah Alam career. Five goalless games preceded the Liberian's first strike - and what a belter it was - for the Red Giants against Perak. His relief when he scored was clear for the world to see.
Effa Owona has been finding the net regularly in Terengganu, and Patrick Wleh has contributed positively to the calmer atmosphere at PKNS Selangor, so they look secure. Or they did until some conjecture suddenly surrounded Wleh's late return from Liberia after the international break. Marlon James at ATM defies the ageing process by being the league’s top scorer, so he, too, looks as secure as it’s possible to be as a foreign striker. Though, hang on, wasn't it only the fact he scored goals so freely in last season's Malaysia Cup that he was given an extension to his contract.
A run of poor games or an injury, and they too could soon be in fear for their contracts. And fear it is. Imagine if you were fighting to have your short-term contract renewed every time you turned up to work. A sword is hanging over your head; you would be unsettled, insecure, reluctant to commit and terrified to make an error. If you were judged on goals, would you pass to a team-mate in a better position if you were under such pressure? Would you be able to perform at your best?
With all this acclimitisation, the threat of instant dismissal if you're not an instant success and the insecurity that breeds, I'd argue that the life of a foreign football player - and particularly that of a foreign striker - is one that only special people can cope with. The man as much as the ability can often prove to be the main factor in the success, or otherwise, of a team’s investment, and my romantic notion of a the wonderful world of the traveling nomadic pro footballer is exposed for the folly that it is.
It's reasonable to expect a lot of the foreign players. By definition, they need to bring something "extra" with them. But the job of foreign player in Malaysia, as shown by recent events, is a job lacking longevity or security. So, I ask you to spare a thought for them once in a while, and to imagine yourself in their shoes. They are human, after all.
And now let's talk about Milan Baros ........