BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The Malaysian football fraternity last week was taken by surprise with the revelation by FourFourTwo that the Malaysian FA (FAM) president; Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim is mulling over a proposal to add an import player slot for South-East Asian (ASEAN) players in the M-League, beginning next season.
Currently, Malaysian clubs in top two tiers are allotted three foreign players slots and one for players from Asian Football Confederation (AFC) countries.
If the proposal is given the go-ahead to be implemented next season, it will begin around the same time that the Thai League implements the same move. The difference is that the Thais have afforded their plan a longer time to gestate; it had been confirmed and announced way back in September 2016.
When the 2018 season of the Thai League kicks off around February next year, around 15 months have passed since their announcement was made, but if the M-League's plan is implemented next January or February, only five months at the most will have passed since the plan was first revealed.
One of the chief reasons behind the proposal, according to Tunku Ismail himself is the need to market the M-League in the region.
“Commercially, the move will help because instantly Malaysian football gets more eyeballs from the region. Finances are something that needs to be addressed because there is very little now and this could be a way,” he told the publication.
Although there is no denying that the M-League needs to be marketed more extensively in order to generate a bigger revenue which can then be used to fund the development of football in the country, many fans have described the step as too far a leap that skips a few more necessary steps in the progression.
It is undeniable that the way the Thai League (or Thai football in general) is run needs to be emulated if we want to improve, but it must be noted that not everything can be transferred directly south across the Malaysian-Thai border.
One glaring difference between the two leagues is that there are 36 clubs combined in the top two tiers in Thailand, whereas there are only 24 in Malaysia's Super League and Premier League.
The Thai League only allows the clubs to field four foreign players at the same time. Even if all 36 clubs start their with the maximum allowed four foreign players on one hypothetical matchday, that means there will still be 252 local Thai players on the pitch alongside the foreigners.
If M-League's ASEAN slot plan happens and the clubs are allowed to field all five players at the same time (at the moment they can field only all four), assuming that on one matchday all 24 clubs start with all five foreign signings; that means only 144 starting places are left for local Malaysian players.
Indonesia star Andik Vermansah has been with Selangor as their AFC foreign player since the 2014 season, and is among the few ASEAN players already plying their trade in the M-League. Photo by CSN
One major drawback of this proposal is that it will bring about a reduction in the number of places in top-level domestic competitions available to local players, which will in turn affect the size of the pool of players who can represent Malaysia at the international stage.
Such an effect has been cited as one of the reasons behind England's inability to succeed at the World Cup, despite the fact that the English Premier League is arguably the most popular domestic league in the world.
A local coach, who asked Goal not to reveal his name, agrees that the plan will disrupt the development of local players, on top of putting an additional strain on the clubs' finances.
With just four foreign players at the moment, we have the imports occupying all the important central roles; as centre backs, central midfielders and strikers.
"If this plan happens, how can our national team improve? And that's before mentioning their huge salaries," said the coach.
However, that's not to say that the ASEAN foreign player slot is ultimately a bad plan. An argument can be made that should other ASEAN countries' domestic leagues follow suit, there will soon be places available abroad for Malaysian footballers to branch out, on top of the possibility that the M-League will catch on among fans in the region, thus generating the much-needed revenue needed by FAM.
Perhaps a happy medium can be found for the implementation; such as by restricting the number of foreigners that can be fielded at the same time by each club in domestic matches to just four, or maybe even three.
Another suggestion has been made by Malaysian football's most prominent fan and critic; Alfadli Awaludin. Writing on his Facebook page; Alfadli suggested that if the ASEAN slot be made available to clubs, then teams competing in the Malaysia Cup should be made to field at least five Malaysian players aged 22 and below in each Malaysia Cup match, as the cup title does not offer a place in any continental competitions, unlike the Super League and the FA Cup.
"We must use it (Malaysia Cup) as a platform for our young players to gain competitive playing experience, and to avoid them from becoming mere benchwarmers.
"This regulation should be implemented if the power that be insists on adding another foreign player slot," he suggested.
Tunku Ismail clarified with FourFourTwo that no part of the plan has been finalised yet, and one hopes that there is still time to reconsider and postpone it for a few more years, or at least to come up with measures that will ensure that more local players will get to play regularly in the M-League, for the sake of Malaysian football as a whole.