The rivalry that Malaysia Super League football needs

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Muslim Ahmad, Pahang v Johor Darul Ta'zim, Malaysia Super League, 28 April 2019
The JDT-Pahang rivalry is not just one between teams challenging for MSL title but a rivalry that could take the league to a much greater height.

One of the most intensely fought title race in football history came to a close at the weekend when Manchester City narrowly edged out Liverpool to win the 2018/19 English Premier League title. Only one point separated the two teams in the final reckoning and the relentlessness at which both teams went at it, made the race such a captivating watch.

In the past there was the mammoth battle between Manchester United and Arsenal which lasted a good decade, over in the German Bundesliga Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are locked in a direct battle heading into the final match of the calendar. It did not happen this season but Barcelona and Real Madrid are always trying to best each other in the Spanish Laliga. 

Every single one of those head-to-head contest all season long made those respective leagues an incredibly engrossing watch. The excitement that each title race amassed transcend that of their own set of fans, with everyone watching with bated breath at how the lead swing from one to the other from one week to another.

The Malaysia Super League has been dominated by Johor Darul Ta'zim since 2014, a year after the club was rebranded from Johor FA. Out of the five league titles that JDT have won in the subsequent years, the smallest winning margin was three points while the biggest was 23 points. But the race for the 2019 title is creating a tidal wave of enthusiasm not seen for a very long time.

Mohamed Salah Liverpool Aymeric Laport Manchester City

After 12 rounds of matches played, JDT are once again leading from the front on 30 points with Pahang trailing close behind on 25 points. They face each other on May 14 at Tan Sri Dato Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium where the latter will be on the prowl to reduce the arrears down to two points and make it a proper title race.

The football in Malaysia needs it, the league needs it and more than most, the fans also wants it. Just like in any competition where one team is so dominant, the fans are understandably calling out for someone to give JDT a real challenge for the biggest prize in Malaysian football.

But the rivalry which has been built up between JDT and Pahang is not only for the respective teams contesting in the 2019 season but it is taking on a much bigger meaning to the number one sport in the country. A rivalry that the game in this country needs to go forward and be a better competition from all aspect.

It is said that players and teams thrive on challenges, and nothing is more challenging than the prospect of another set of players and team pushing you all the way to the title. Having intense competition means the need to improve - quality wise and general standards of consistency. It means maintaining a high level of output and pushing beyond limits and boundaries to best each other.

Dickson Nwakaeme, Pahang v Johor Darul Ta

Which ultimately pushes both teams to continually improve their squad, bringing in better players to get one over each other. That means that quality of the squads become better, which ultimately raises the standard of football being played on the pitch. JDT have shown that they are able to compete in the AFC Champions League but with the added push from Pahang, could even force them to be stronger in that competition.

The prospect of creating a rivalry that last more than beyond just this season will also become an attractive proposition for the commercial side of things. The value of the Super League increases for Malaysian Football League (MFL) and it's sponsors. The direct duel will dominate continuous discussions between football fans and immediately becomes adds value to the league and in return, to its sponsors.

When Barcelona plays Real Madrid in the past, the attention always centered around Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo. On a much lesser scale and longer period, the MSL version could likely be the guile of Diogo Luis Santo against the power of Dickson Nwakaeme or the fight for the best winger in the league between Mohamadou Sumareh and Gonzalo Cabrera. 

Comparatively, JDT did what was necessary to get from where they were back in 2013 to now but without proper competition and challenge, they could plateau and find it hard to push into the next bracket of quality in Asian football. Likewise without JDT, Pahang may not have push themselves to be where they are and being able to separate themselves from the rest of the teams in the division.

JDT could well beat Pahang at Larkin in Match Day 13 of the 2019 MSL season and increase the gap from five points to eight points, and thus making it difficult to see another title being decided earlier than preferred. But the neutral would be hoping that the opposite happen because the game demands it.

JDT and Pahang need each other to take another couple of steps up the football chain. Malaysian football needs them to do it.


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