Inside the unhappy marriage between JDT and Pablo Aimar - Why the Argentine superstar failed to make his mark in Malaysia

Pablo Aimar, Johor Darul Ta'zim
Johor Southern Tigers
Without doubt the biggest name to ever play in the M-League but despite the fanfare, the Aimar show did not quite take off as expected

Malaysia was to be home of Pablo Aimar for two different spells at very contrasting periods of his career that saw two distinct outcomes. 

Back in 1997, Aimar had arrived on these shores with the Argentina national team then competing in the FIFA World Youth Championship alongside other memorable names such as Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme and Walter Samuel.

Many a great name would come out from that tournament, including Thierry Henry, David Trezequet, Nicolas Anelka, Shunsuke Nakamura, David Albelda and Michael Owen, but that Argentina team was something else and even provided a little premonition into the future for Aimar.

Aimar was only 17 years old at the time but already showing plenty of promise that even drew comparisons with the great Diego Maradona as he led the young Albicelestes to the title. After completing their group stage in Perlis, Aimar and co traveled to Johor Bahru to face England in the Round of 16.

That appearance at Tan Sri Dato Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium on 26 June 1997 for Aimar would not be his last in that venue as he signed for Johor Darul Ta’zim in 2014 when he was at the tail-end of his career at the age of 34 following impressive spells with River Plate, Valencia, Real Zaragoza and Benfica.

Pablo Cesar Aimar Juan Roman Riquelme during a training session of Argentina in Nuremberg 17062005

JDT was only in the second season of their rebranding and the signing of Aimar signalled the club’s intention to rise to the very top. The arrival of Luciano Figueroa in the same season saw much less fanfare than what Aimar brought but ultimately both had very different contributions to the club.

Aimar only played eight matches that season, scoring twice. Struggling to maintain his fitness, Aimar’s second adventure in Malaysia only lasted four months and he was moved out in April of 2014. It was a big letdown considering the expectations on him and HRH Major General Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim offers the reasons why it didn't work out quite as expected.

"I think Aimar did very well. It's just that at the time we were not ready for Pablo Aimar. We were not ready to have a player of that calibre in terms of the team, structure, facilities ... everything. The system itself was in a process of improving," the JDT supremo told Goal.

“To me, Aimar is a top player and played a big part in our success and also by promoting our name internationally. Of course, we were satisfied with his quality but we were not ready. Of course, people have high expectations but I don't think the expectations were too high. 

“He was in his 30s and in the midst of retiring when he signed for us. I think in terms of football, contributing to our philosophy was what I appreciated the most rather than just analysing what he could do on the pitch. It was more of a learning process for us."

In his pomp, Aimar was a creative playmaker with the vision and technique to execute the pass, the capability to dribble past opponents and while scoring goals wasn’t one of his major attributes, throughout his career he managed to contribute his fair share.

It was a real shame that when football fans in Malaysia were able to see him in the flesh again, 17 years after he first captivated them, Aimar was already on the downslide and no longer had the physical capacity to produce what his imaginative mind intended.

While the marriage with JDT was brief and did not serve its whole purpose, it did tick some right boxes.

Signing him made JDT a major talking point all around the world because of the stature of Aimar. More than that, it also informed TMJ and JDT on their future plans, and what type of foreign players they would look to sign going forward.

"I am more interested in having 11 men running on the pitch instead of a VIP, who is a big name but 10 other players need to run for him. I prefer 11 strong men who are willing to die for each other on the pitch. 

“It was a good idea to promote JDT at that time and it would be nice to maybe have another big name here one day but it depends on the player because to have another like Luciano Figueroa, who contributed in defence and attack all the time is not easy.

"Especially with China spoiling the market, to have a superstar come here wouldn't be likely because they would prefer to go to China or even Japan unless they are planning to retire or we are paying a huge amount of money which I don't think is good for JDT or fair for the club because we have other things to maintain.

"For financial stability, I prefer having good players, hungry players who have not achieved that much of success and have that fire burning in them instead of someone who wants a big paycheck and considers it a holiday,” explained Tunku Ismail.