Selangor, the 33-time Malaysia Cup champions and former Malaysian powerhouse, are currently undergoing a rebuilding process under its president, the Selangor state Crown Prince Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin.
Ever since the California, US-born royalty was elected to the post back in July 2018, Tengku Amir focused his administration's attention on reorganising the association's structure, regrowing their fan base, as well as on improving its facilities.
While on-pitch success has been limited for the Red Giants so far, they have been showing signs that they are on the right path through more fan engagement initiatives, better marketing strategies and recruitment, and as well as a more serious youth development programme.
Just days before the 2020 Malaysian league resumed on 28 August 2020 following the Covid-19 lockdown, Goal was afforded the opportunity to interview His Highness Tengku Amir, who graciously spent around one hour answering our questions on topics such as his time as association chief, its privatisation push, and his success benchmarks.
Goal: Tengku, what motivated you to take over the association leadership in 2018?
Tengku Amir: Years ago, I only knew that the team was mired in football politics. At the time, my involvement in football was at the grassroots level, through my NGO (Selangor Youth Community) I started developing the [privately-run amateur league] Selangor Champions League, where I picked up two-years' worth of experience; how football is developing in the country and what is lacking.
And then the association president just left halfway through the season, which left a big gap. I was called to step in, which at the time was already the third time I was called to step up. I had rejected the first two times I was called to assume the role because I did not feel confident enough in my football knowledge. This time I could not avoid being pushed into the role.
I regarded it as a challenge that I can conquer with a good team around me, people who are smart capable, eager and passionate. I wanted to see how I can positively affect not just football in the state of Selangor, but also in the state of Malaysia.
G: Those who you have brought on to the Selangor administration include young professionals such as secretary-general Johan Kamal Hamidon and former vice president Izhar Moslim. What are their qualities that you count on?
Izhar Moslim. Photo by Zulhilmi Zainal
TA: Their biggest strength is their energy. They're very passionate men who want to do well whatever the mission is, which is very important in football. In this business, there are going to be days you'll be pulling your hair out due to obstacles and this is where they shine. We've stumbled upon roadblocks, but they didn't see them as disasters. It's always "We'll find a way" with them.
G: What has been the biggest challenge you faced so far, during your time as association president?
TA: The first thing is something I had not expected; the association is composed of affiliate clubs and in the first three months of my presidency, a number of them started to sabotage the association. They wanted to stick to the old ways, in the 80's, not wanting to change and to accept that we are no longer a great team.
Secondly is injuries. I had not expected so many of our players to be injured so quickly, which shocked me a little. That made me look into our rehabilitation and training methods, sports science programmes, which then led us to partner with the UiTM (Mara University of Technology) sports science faculty. We did have a team doctor previously, but it was touch and go. That was one of the learning curves we have had to tackle.
G: Has anything surprised you about running a football team, since becoming the president?
TA: The players have definitely surprised me. There's this negative notion of footballers that they only play for themselves and care little about the club. I disagree with this, and they deserve a lot more credit. Malaysian footballers have become more and more professional over the years and you can see their dedication to the club. They work hard, they're eager, but they also enjoy themselves, which I believe is important in doing our work in order to produce the best performance.
G: Malaysians fans, and Malaysians in general, seem to respond better to the strong-man type of leadership, whereas you have been preferring a more low-profile approach. Is this a deliberate decision on your part, Tengku?
TA: Yes, it is a little bit intentional because I don't see the need for myself to be in the limelight. What I say can't really change the outcome. If I do say something, I want it to have a positive effect in terms of changes and attitude. What speaks more clearly to the fans is the team and the coach. It's they who need to answer to the fans; the tactics, strategy, why they make certain decisions. I can't really answer for them. But on the association's part, I do speak occassionally.
In my first year, I was very much reserved which had a lot to do with me lacking the experience and I acknowledge this. I didn't want to pretend that I know everything and that I know what's best. Again, I have good people around me with the knowledge, so I prop them up and let them explain the situation.
For example the head coach B. Satiananthan; who's a fantastic coach to work with. You can see how the players are eager to please him because he's very hard to please. I need that, someone who's strong and can command the players.
G: Moving on to more topical matters; the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the club. How damaging has it been?
TA: It has been quite a setback. Everything we have planned now needs one more year to be implemented. I'm very much into youth development, and for the  President Cup and the Youth Cup abandoned, that's one year lost by the players. One of my key pillars as president; our facilities has also been impacted. We had plans to add a covered pratice pitch to our training ground...that now has to be postponed as well. So training was off, youth development is off, construction works are still off.
Selangor training ground in Shah Alam. Photo by Zulhilmi Zainal
G: What about your plans for next season, have they been impacted as well?
TA: Thankfully, the management side of things are still on track. The FAM's (Malaysian FA) current privatisation push requires us to only establish our company this year. The management had already started discussing on next season's matters two months ago, because that's how the business is. You've got to plan, plan and plan ahead especially in terms of the sponsors.
The major sponsors are still in discussions with us, but what I'm particularly eager to see work out is our Local Giants [sponsorship] programme. The beauty of it is that there are 7,000 SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in the state of Selangor. If I can get just 10 per cent, 700 of them on board as sponsors, the combined amount of their small contributions will be huge for us. This is how it's done in world football; local companies and firms support their local team financially. Why is this not happening in Malaysia?
Super League teams are always expected to go for these big, national level corporations, but why about the local companies? Why can't they participate? Yes, they may not have a million Ringgit to spare, but they may have 10,000. Our marketing team can package these micro-sponsorship deals to get the brands out there to the fans' attention.
G: The FAM-enforced privatisation/separation initiative is one thing that your association is working on currently. Can you explain a little about the direction of the club (FC) that will be formed?
TA: The structure is going to be a normal Sendirian Berhad (Private Limited) which will enable checks and balances as well astransparency. It will be an SPV (special purpose vehicle) with the involvement of state government-linked companies such as PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation) and MBI (Menteri Besar Selangor [Incorporated]) as investors.
I will be a minor shareholder, and will also be looking for more investors, this is still ongoing. My role would be as the typical company chairman, guiding the company and the club by making sure that the day-to-day operations are above board and that we adhere to our brand and footballing targets.
G: What do you think that the club needs to show in order to attract more investors and sponsors?
TA: The biggest thing I've learnt so far is that we've been showing a clearer governance. People are worried that if they put their money in, it's going to go somewhere else instead. They wonder how much of their money is actually going to the players and development.
The first thing we did was to ensure that everything we did was accounted for, basically keeping it clean and showing that our systems are above board. Malaysian teams need to show clarity in terms of what they're going to invest in in the next one to five years.
G: State funding is still involved; are there plans to wean the club off this?
TA: When I first took over, I hoped that the club would be financially self-sufficient within my first three years. But I now knew that I was too ambitious. I still haven't given up on this plan, on one day not needing the state's money any longer.
For the time being, Malaysian clubs are mostly planning for the short term; six months or one-year ahead, and no companies are going to want to invest in such a plan. We need to build the confidence in Malaysian football by developing clearer plans.
G: After privatisation/separation, what will happen to your role as association president? Will Your Highness head both organisations?
TA: Yes I will. At the moment I think this is necessary because I don't want the synergy to break down. I'm worried if I leave one or the other, things would stall or stagnate and both organisations would start opposing one another. I don't want this 'us vs them' mentality to develop. When I absorbed PKNS FC, I immediately told both sides that they are now under the umbrella of Selangor football.
But obviously, in time I will make way for other people who are just as, no, even more passionate about football than I am.
G: Is there a benchmark for the association or the club, whereby if it is surpassed, you can tell yourself that you have succeeded?
TA: That's a splendid question (laughs). For me, it's when I've instilled a system that will ensure that things will not go backwards. A system that makes sure that our governance, laws and rules on both club and association are all solid.
I want to see that people are there truly for football, with the love and passion for developing the sport, not those who are there to gain political mileage. That's when I can step back and not worry so much anymore.
Read part 2 of the interview here: Tengku Amir Shah wants to win first silverware soon