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From trophies galore to MSL mediocrity - How excessive politics, complacency nearly ruined Selangor

22:36 BST 10/05/2020
Selangor vs Pahang
The last decade has seen traditional Malaysian powerhouse Selangor slipping from glory. How did things go wrong for the Red Giants?

Success in football can be fleeting, and Malaysian football has seen just how volatile its participating teams can get.

Several clubs have gone from winning multiple titles in one season, to being relegated just a few years down the road, as their state funding dries up.

Even the so-called traditional giants are not spared this fate, as in the case of 33-time Malaysia Cup champions Selangor.

The Red Giants, representing the state of Selangor, one of the richest Malaysian states, have won multiple Malaysia Cup titles going back to the pre- Merdeka (Independence) period.

Selangor transitioned successfully into the league era, which officially began in 1982 as the qualifying stage for the Malaysia Cup, capturing the various iterations of the Malaysian first division championship a total of six times. When the FA Cup was first contested in 1990, they would go on to win it six times.

Mokhtar Dahari, Selangor and Malaysia's football legend. 

But save for the 2015 Malaysia Cup title, their thirty third, they have not won anything since their last successful run in 2009 and 2010, in which they bagged back-to-back Super League titles and the FA Cup trophy, under head coach K. Devan.

Since then, the Red Giants have existed in a state of mediocrity, not bad enough to be relegated as they had been in the 1980's and 90's, but nowhere near good enough to win titles as regularly as they had before.

Post 2010, the failure to modernise and excessive internal politicking have finally caught up with the Red Giants.

It is hardly news that professional Malaysian clubs had subsisted, and still subsist, on state government funding or royal patronage. In exchange for funding, the seat of association president is usually earmarked for the state Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of the day. Selangor are no different, and the state's sizable coffers were able to fund its title chase during their glory days.

But that all changed in 2008, when an unprecedented change in the state government took place. In March, the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition of political parties that had ruled the state and Malaysia since before Merdeka was voted out in the state, replaced by the federal opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (later Pakatan Harapan , Alliance of Hope).

Unlike its Barisan predecessor, the Pakatan governments (in Selangor and other states) are not as invested in footballing success, and although the Selangor government did provide an annual budget to the Red Giants, it did not take an active interest in the association.

As a result, the influence of its already-powerful executive committee (exco) members, who have been described as "warlords" by a club source, grew unchecked. Unlike other teams and association in the country, amendments had been made to the Selangor association statute which limit the power of its president.

Following the end of their successful 2009 season, team manager Zakaria Rahim, an outsider appointed the year before on a full-time basis by then Menteri Besar and association president Khalid Ibrahim, found himself a target of the exco members' envy, and was then ousted.

Khalid Ibrahim (fourth from the right)

In the early 2000's, the exco had even gone against the directive of the Sultan of Selangor, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah Al-Haj who wanted them to elect a presidential candidate that he endorsed in the congress. Such dissent against the ruling state monarch is almost unheard of in other Malaysian states.

Rumours were abound too of corrupt practices, although these are not just limited to the Red Giants. A source once told Goal that it was not unusual for certain exco members to push for their favoured players to be signed, promoted to the first team, or picked for the first eleven, in order for them to receive kickbacks from the players' wages or appearance fees.

In the meantime, the players too displayed undue influence. They ended the 2012 and 2013 Super League campaigns in third and second place respectively under well-respected head coach Irfan Bakti, but squad mutiny led to a group stage exit in the 2013 Malaysia, as well as Irfan's resignation.

Selangor in 2013

All the while, very little was planned for its future, at a time when major clubs around the world were advancing their operations and training methods. The Red Giants still used the pitch of the state secretariat complex in Shah Alam as its training ground, courtesy of the state government.

At the same time, the gap in the financial strengths between them and other teams shrank, and they were soon overtaken by new powerhouse Johor Darul Ta'zim.

All these factors would come to a head under the presidency of Azmin Ali, who replaced Khalid as Menteri Besar and association president in 2014 and 2015, and would show a more active involvement in the team. But while most Malaysian teams would thrive under the interest and support of the state government, the opposite happened with Selangor.

Upon his election by the association exco, Azmin appointed state Youth Development, Sports, Cultural and Entrepreneurship Development executive council member Amiruddin Ali as team manager, and it did not take long for the relationship between Azmin and the club officials to turn sour.

Amirudin Shari. Photo by Zulhilmi Zainal

Club legend and former Australia international Mehmet Durakovic returned to guide them to another second-place league finish in 2014, but they would ultimately end the season trophy-less. 

As the 2015 league and FA Cup titles slipped from their fingers, it was rumoured that one camp has given Durakovic the boot, pending an official statement. Surprisingly, the Australian, who had won three Malaysia Cup titles with them as a player in the mid-90's, led his charges to the post-season Malaysia Cup title, beating Kedah 2-0 in the final. Nevertheless, he was still given the sack with one year remaining on his contract, and replaced by another former legend Zainal Abidin Hassan.

Unfortunately, under Zainal they performed worse in the league the following year, finishing in fifth place, which led Azmin to give him the boot. He also demanded the resignation of two association officials.

However, once again the club exco members proved to be too powerful, even for the state's head of government. Azmin and Amiruddin resigned from the club, paving the way for the election of Subahan Kamal as its president ahead of the 2017 season.

What ensued in the following year was nothing short of a farce.

Azmin pulled state government's funding, which led to the association retaliating by withholding permission for another Selangor-based side and affiliate club PKNS FC (another club supported by the government) to compete in the Super League. PKNS smartly switched affiliations to another association in order to receive the endorsement, while Azmin compounded the Red Giants' misery by locking the team out of their home ground, the Shah Alam Stadium. More disappointingly, a training centre that had been built by the government for the club in the Puncak Alam neighbourhood was not handed over to them upon completion.

PKNS vs Selangor in 2017. Photo from PKNS

Without the state's financial support, assistant coach and former caretaker P. Maniam was promoted as permanent boss, leading a roster that included a number of hastily-promoted youth players. Lacking the firepower, Maniam's charges finished the league in sixth place, and reached nowhere near the final of the cup competitions. Bizarrely, the acrimonious split did not stop Subahan, who is also a Malaysian FA deputy president, from demanding financial support from the state government on several occassions.

The following season, their league finish was worse, in eighth place, even if they did reach the FA Cup final. But by that time the Red Giants' performance was eclipsed by their bizarre off-pitch affairs. Finally locked out of the state secretariat pitch, they had to borrow a National Sports Council pitch for training, while sharing the homeground of their Klang Valley rivals Kuala Lumpur.

Fortunately for Selangor fans, this dark, humiliating episode would come to an end in May 2018. Subahan made way for the Selangor Crown Prince, Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin. But that was only half of the job, according to club sources.

The soft-spoken prince had been allowed to be involved in the association by his father only with the caveat that all the exco members are loyal to him, a condition that was perhaps informed by his own run-ins with them decades earlier, and the reminder would be proven true later that year. A group of exco members who were disgruntled at the house cleaning undertaken by Tengku Amir and their resultant loss of power held their own congress, and elected themselves to top spots. Curiously, they still elected the royalty as president.

Tengku Amir (right). Photo by Zulhilmi Zainal

It took some savvy manouvering to ensure that the rogue faction was finally defeated, but even with an exco that is loyal to him, and the return of state support (this time with Amiruddin as the Menteri Besar ), the 29-year old has inherited an association with plenty of baggage.

His administration has shown that it has the right idea by modernising its operations, moving towards privatisation and refurbishing its training ground, but they are yet to win over one of its biggest components; its fanbase. In a country where fan loyalty is mostly secured by winning matches and silverware, it does not take much for the Red Giants supporters (or what is left of them after the fall from grace) to turn on their team and stop attending matches. He may have the right ideas, but Tengku Amir's administration needs to do more to convince the fans that every defeat, hiccup or misstep is a part and parcel of the rebuilding process, instead of a sign of a doomed transformation mission.

Selangor fans pose with the team in 2019