BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The Malaysia Cup, or Piala Malaysia, is popularly known as one of Asia's oldest footballing tournaments, and it was first contested in 1921 as the Malaya Cup. The tournament-style modern iteration of the competition pits 16 top teams from the top two divisions of professional football in the country, as a sort of conclusion for the footballing season. It has always held a certain kind of appeal to local football fans, and arguably is even more popular than the league and knockout competitions that are also played each season. However, the Malaysia Cup also faces the risk of going obsolete in the coming years.
How is that so?
Unlike the Malaysian Super League (MSL) and Malaysian FA Cup, Malaysia Cup winners do not qualify for any regional nor continental competitions. As of this moment, MSL and FA Cup champions automatically qualify for the AFC Cup. The younger set of fans, especially the local ultras, who are a bit more results and improvement-minded than the previous generation given the doldrums Malaysian football is currently in, have been very vocal about their insistence to their teams that they should be aiming to compete at the continental stage. This essentially means devoting more resources to winning the FA Cup or the MSL, than on winning the Malaysia Cup which they now increasingly view as a 'jaguh kampung' win, or at best, a bonus silverware not unlike the season-opener Charity Shield.
Of course, this will not happen overnight. Ironically, should Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) get more serious about improving the standards of Malaysian football, this could bring about the competition's demise even quicker, as Malaysian teams become more competitive and set a loftier target, Asia.
"The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) rules only allow winners of knockout or league competitions to qualify for the AFC Champions League or the AFC Cup"
It must be said that the historical cup's obsoletion, and the loss of the rich tradition behind it, will definitely be a loss. After all, tradition and history are part and parcel of being a supporter. So how can the reputation of Malaysia Cup be maintained?
To provide the cup winners with even more competition, the winning slot should provide the team a place to a continental competition. However, there is a problem with this. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) rules only allow winners of knockout or league competitions to qualify for the AFC Champions League or the AFC Cup. As the Malaysia Cup is a tournament competition, its winner is not eligible. Another solution is for the winners to be given a spot in the mooted ASEAN Super League, which is under the purview of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF). However since its announcement in early 2013, nothing concrete was ever heard again about the plan.
A suggestion that could work, but requires a major overhaul, is to reform the competition into a knockout or play-off style competition, much like Australia's post-league finals series, that is participated by the six top teams of the recently-concluded A-League. The winner of the Australian season-end competition is guaranteed a spot in the AFC Champions League. If the Malaysia Cup is turned into a knockout competition, perhaps FAM could convince AFC to grant Malaysia another spot at the Asian level.
However the drawback of this proposal could be opposition from a more purist section of Malaysian fans itself, who may also cite FAM's penchant for constant tournament format change, which in turn will make FAM itself reluctant to implement the necessary change. Another less glaring drawback of this suggestion is the reduction in the number of competitive matches played in each season, which will be detrimental to the fitness and footballing system in overall. The current format provides between six and 11 more matches to the participating teams, on top of the 22 league matches, plus FA Cup matches.
If all else fails, perhaps money is the answer. To maintain its attractiveness, the tournament prize money could be multiplied, to eclipse the current amount, and also those of MSL and FA Cup's.