BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
This week Malaysian professional football was shocked by two news. One, T-Team FC will no longer participate in the M-League under that name and will function as a feeder club under the newly-established Terengganu FC set-up in the Premier League.
While the Titans' fate had been hanging in the balance for all to see in the past month, it is the second news that took many by surprise. Recent FAM Cup champions Sime Darby FC, who have secured a return to the second tier with the title win, on Wednesday announced the shutting down of their professional team to concentrate on their youth development and amateur side. It is not unusual for the administrators of lower-tier clubs, having had their naive hopes of following formation with a quick promotion dashed by repeated failures, to simply throw in the towel and cease taking part or even disband, but for a seasoned club to quit while they are ahead, like the Giant Killers did is rather surprising.
These two are just the officially confirmed updates. The fate of Premier League's Kuantan FA are also rumoured to be in limbo after they reportedly had failed to settle 10 months' worth of their players' wages a few months ago. Big-spending FAM Cup side Felcra FC, having fallen at the last promotional hurdle for two years in a row, are also said to have lost the belief (and the chequebook) of their owners.
One main reason has emerged as the culprit behind these cases: the failure to secure financial sustainability.
In T-Team's case, the restructuring enforced relegation move was made as the Terengganu FA, which funds them as well as the Terengganu team, wanted to streamline their spending on professional football in the state of Terengganu. It is fair for the club staff and players to feel hard done in by the decision, but at the end of the day, you don't get to take someone else's money without having to dance to their tune.
Whereas for Sime Darby, it has been rumoured that the decision was made as a consequence of the parent company; Sime Darby Group's restructuring move.
Malaysian clubs have disbanded or pulled out from competing in the top tiers before without anyone raising an eyebrow, but for two rather high-profile teams to do so within days of each other is admittedly worrying.
Malaysian football is slightly fortunate in the sense that there is still government interest in it, resulting in the financial contributions of federal and state governments in clubs and youth development.
But the more astute section of the fans and observers have already called for a more financially-sustainable mode of operations, one which does not involve taxpayers' money being sunk in wily-nily in teams that have nothing to show for it at the end of each season.
And they are not wrong. As generous as the governments may have been, their resources are not unlimited, and the depreciating Ringgit Malaysia may just continue to deteriorate to the point that the governments, as well as companies, may want to prioritise their spendings away from the sport.
When that happens, the effect may be felt higher up the Malaysian pyramid. If more teams and even the estbalished sides are disbanded, then the M-League will no longer be contested; in a domino effect.
A good example can be taken from a country where football is not their biggest sport, and receives little governmental financial assistance. USA's Major League Soccer (MSL) is one of the best-growing markets in the world at the moment, but its predecessor North American Soccer League ceased operations in 1984 after many of its franchise teams withdrew due to continued financial losses.
It was only 12 years later that the MLS was formed, but although it continues to grow now, the organiser remains cautious. Promotion and relegation do not take place for fear of allowing a financially unstable team to disrupt the league operations further down the line, while new franchises are allowed entry only after a stringent due diligence process that involves far more than on-the-pitch and financial matters.
The idea of a franchise league without promotion and relegation may sound unpalatable to football purists and Malaysian fans, but there are still lessons that club administrators in the country can take from MLS; one being their club's financial status may affect other teams and even the competitions.
Surprisingly, the CEO of M-League organiser Football Malaysia LLP (FMLLP), Kevin Ramalingam has chosen to put a positive spin on the recent goings-on, when contacted by Goal.
While admitting that the ideal situation is for clubs to not have to withdraw from competing or shut down in the first place, Kevin told us that the current changes are necessary and are transitory in nature.
"I believe the supposed trend of clubs seriously evaluating their financial condition before going into a season is a very, very good thing.
"These days clubs take stock of their financial situations more seriously than before. In the past clubs will undertake the season knowing full well that they don't have enough money.
"What we are seeing today is progress and not something we need to be worried about because there is still massively high interest in Malaysian football. There are teams knocking on the door from the FAM Cup, eager to be given the chance in the top leagues," he said in a telephone conversation.
When asked, Kevin responded that the licencing requirements currently being put in place by the organisation will place a bigger emphasis on revenue generation by M-League clubs.
"In club licencing there is something called the business criteria.
"In the first year they have to submit a business plan, but in the following years that business plan will need to be executed," he remarked.
Kevin Ramalingam. Photo by FMLLP
In a way it is reassuring to hear from the top man himself that he is not worried about a potential collapse of professional football, but it is hoped that FMLLP will be able to make the clubs toe line on the aforementioned requirements.
After all, even until now, there are still Super League clubs that are without a club licence issued by the Malaysian FA, much less one issued by the Asian Football Confederation, despite having been given over two years to sort their papers out.
Furthermore, it is not just the competition that may be affected. With Malaysia expected to plummet to its lowest ever place in the FIFA ranking on Thursday following a winless 2017, a smaller number of teams would lead to a smaller pool of Malaysian players plying their trade at the top level, which will do nothing to fix the toothless Harimau Malaya.