BY I.F. WONG Follow on Twitter
The saying goes that nice guys finish last but in the case of Selangor head coach Mehmet Durakovic it may just be an exception. He leads his largely unfancied side on Saturday against Kedah possibly 90 minutes away from the Klang Valley side winning their 33rd Malaysia Cup title – something their fans have craved for a decade. And he has done this – as well as finishing in the top two in the MSL in each of his two years at Selangor and qualifying for the 2016 AFC Cup – while enduring some of the most testing of circumstances.
Durakovic, a Selangor legend as a player in the 1990s, arrived at Shah Alam at the last minute at the end of 2013 after B. Sathianathan turned his back on his decision to coach the Red Giants for 2014. As a result he inherited a squad built for Sathianathan, bringing in only Australian defender Steve Pantelidis after his attempts at securing several players failed so late in the day. Luckily for him, he could call upon the talents of the likes of Paulo Rangel, Andik Vermansah and Farizal Marlias and was a whisker away from winning the MSL title losing out on the final day to moneybags JDT. Money issues within the Selangor FA (FAS) and problems with their temperamental talisman Rangel meant their Malaysia Cup campaign derailed in the quarterfinal.
Even as early 2014, there were already plots by certain officials within FAS to remove him and it was only the late intervention by the then newly-appointed team manager Amirudin Shaari kept him in the job. By then his squad had all but been destroyed – key players Rangel, Farizal and S. Kunanlan left for bigger money and players brought in by FAS some of which while he was away in Australia. What should have been the year where Selangor would seriously challenge JDT if they had strengthen the team, Durakovic instead ended up with a squad even weaker. Selangor’s lack of funds (their budget among the lowest in the MSL) meant that they could not hold on to their best players or sign suitable replacements. There was no excuse, however, for FAS to bring in the likes of the perpetually injured S. Subramaniam who has not kicked a ball since his move from JDT on no small money at that. Many feared for Selangor and Mehmet and even the possibility of relegation was whispered around.
That Selangor topped the league at halfway point and ended up third (later promoted to second after Pahang were penalised) is massive credit to Durakovic and his team of battlers. Local players such as Hazwan Bakri, Azrif Nasrulhaq, Nazmi Faiz and Afiq Azmi have come to prominence under his guidance often “covering” for foreign players Guilherme de Paula, Andik Vermansah and Leandro dos Santos when they have their off days.
Despite this, behind the scenes, the same individuals in the Selangor FA continued to plot the Australian’s downfall and started negotiations with prospective coaches even before the 2015 Malaysia Cup started – probably anticipating an early exit for the Red Giants when they saw that Selangor had been drawn with Felda, Kelantan and T-Team. Knives were sharpened after Selangor stuttered at the start – a 0-3 home defeat to Kelantan. The team rallied, however, and even topped the group with a game to spare. That didn’t stop the said officials and they proceeded to sign a pre-contract with Pahang coach Zainal Abidin Hassan despite Durakovic having a year left in his contract. Amirudin was at pains to dismiss the rumours but it had by then been the worst kept secret in Malaysian football.
How sweet it must have been for Mehmet to beat his would-be replacement Zainal in a straight fight when Selangor overcame defending Champions Pahang in the semifinals with clearly, on paper, an inferior team. But inferior they are not in terms of fighting spirit and camaraderie. Their victory over Pahang – Dickson Nwakaeme and all – was a demonstration of sheer determination and a will to fight for their coach. And not for the first time this year. Frantic celebrations on the pitch and in the dressing room after match in Shah Alam shows that they are indeed the “family” Durakovic often insists they are. This family apparently doesn’t include plotting villains in FAS who seem determined to break the team up.
But why are these officials so against Durakovic? Ask anyone who has met the Aussie and they will tell you what a pleasant obliging person he is and for those who know him, they will tell you that he one of the most honest and genuine people you are likely to meet. One possible factor is that Durakovic was brought in by the now frozen-out FAS Deputy President Datuk Mokhtar Ahmad. Mokhtar’s opponents in FAS could be keen to remove anything to do with him in Selangor. Added to this, Mehmet’s integrity means that he loathes the political game within the FA and refuses to “listen” to the bigwigs in FAS.
And what of Zainal? Winning the FA Cup and Malaysia Cup in 2014 was certainly creditable achievement for the former Selangor legendary striker and the story floating around is that he will come with a “package” together with midfielder Hafiz Kamal, winger R. Gopinathan, defender Razman Roslan and goalkeeper Khairul Azhan. Initially it was believed that star forward Dickson Nwakaeme would be part of the deal but that seems off now probably due to the Nigerian’s astronomical reported wages. With Nazmi Faiz’s coming of age in midfield, Norazlan Razali’s superb form in goal and Shahrom Kalam marshalling the defence well, one wonders if Selangor really need those players. Despite Zainal’s undoubted success, some suspect that he had lived, at least in part, on Nwakaeme’s brilliance. Soundbites from Pahang is that they will make no attempt to try and keep him and that should ring some bells as far as Selangor’s concerned.
Self-sabotage seems a Selangor specialty. Should FAS go ahead and sign Zainal, they would break up a team on the way up and start over again. If they decide to keep Durakovic, they have yet again left it awfully late for the Aussie to start building a team for next year. Some people, it seems, just never learn.
The glory-starved Selangor fans have also started to get behind Durakovic. In polls on social media, the overwhelming majority prefer the Australian to stay on rather than Zainal coming in.
Whatever happens on Saturday, it seems Durakovic can’t lose. If he is removed, he will be a pseudo-martyr on top of a nice contractual pay-off. If he keeps his job, justice would, for once, be done though he will be faced with a difficult task of building a strong team for next year when others have had a head start.