Major investment has bailed the club out of financial trouble and promises a return to competitiveness – but it's a fine balancing act before corporate involvement threatens to interfere in club affairs, writes John Duerden.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and things were certainly getting desperate for Kelantan. These giants of Malaysian football had been going through some well-documented financial hardship. Past players and coaches had not been paid. It was all pretty embarrassing for such a prestigious club.
Such hardship appears over, but there is a danger of things becoming embarrassingly pretty for the 2016 season following the increasingly controversial sponsorship deal signed with Vida Beauty.
This two-year agreement which is worth a reported figure of around US$4 million (RM18 million) is obviously a big deal for the Red Warriors (though that is not their nickname anymore – more of that later) in all senses. Without it, who knows what the prospects for the coming season would be?
The story of a health and beauty company becoming involved with a major football club is an interesting and novel one.
With the funds now pouring in, ex-players are getting paid and new ones are being bought, with the league's 2014 top-scorer Dramane Traore set to join the team. There is, at last, some optimism ahead of the new season after Kelantan's ninth-placed finish in 2015.
Perhaps saying that the deal is big in all senses is inaccurate, however. Maybe stating that the price being paid is high could be more apt.
Vida Beauty is a well-known cosmetic company run by the extremely successful, energetic and ambitious Datuk Seri Hasmiza Othman, better known as Datuk Seri Vida. This 44-year-old Ipoh native has built her own beauty empire and has plans to conquer more of Malaysia and Southeast Asia in general.
No surprise then that getting involved with Kelantan was an attractive idea. A big club with a big supporter base, but one in desperate need of investors, could easily be considered the perfect vehicle for the company to spread its name.
When the deal was publicly signed on January 15, it was reported that the club's stadium was going to be repainted pink, with the final decision taking place on Friday. That doesn't sound too bad, the old Sultan Mohammad IV Stadium could do with a touch up, and a little pink here and there shouldn't be a problem.
Football too often sees itself as a macho sport and perhaps has a problem with the colour. It shouldn't. The most important thing is that the stands are full, the players are being paid and there is a team to watch. And if it does attract some more female fans, that can only be a good thing – even if the ground has to be called 'Pamoga Qu Puteh TRQ' Camp.
'Qu Puteh Qu Puteh ... barulah puteh' is the company's tagline (Qu Puteh is a skin-whitening drink and one of the company's two best-selling products) and is best said breathlessly with two fingers brushing a cheek above pouted lips, as the players and officials at the club did – or were forced to do – at the sponsorship signing ceremony last week. The Red Warriors, now renamed ‘Qu Puteh The Red Warriors’, looked a little embarrassed.
But OK, jumping through the occasional hoop for a crucial sponsor is part of modern football and something that has to be done, especially for a club that was in serious financial straits. The story of a health and beauty company becoming involved with a major football club, meanwhile, is an interesting and novel one.
"Datuk Seri Vida has great ideas which is a boost for Kafa [Kelantan FA],” said Kelantan chief executive Annuar Musa. “I see her terms in a positive manner, whereby it has succeeded in creating a new euphoria in the country's football scene. She does not only want to be a normal sponsor.”
There is, at last, some optimism ahead of the new season after Kelantan's ninth-placed finish in 2015.
That's clear but there are not many examples of normal sponsors in state-run Malaysian football. While corporate cash is welcome, external sponsors cannot be allowed to become all-powerful. Datuk Seri Vida obviously knows plenty about marketing and that is more than many in football, but it should not go further than that.
A little rebranding may attract the casual fan, but too much can alienate the hardcore ones who stick with the club through thick and thin. While they will appreciate the injection of cash, fooling around with the identity of the club can be dangerous.
Which is why reports on January 20 that she had said her company wanted to produce Kelantan's shirts for the new season are worrying. Vida Beauty may not want to be a normal sponsor, but that does not mean they can ride roughshod over existing business deals with Nike, the kind of deals which normal sponsors have to abide by.
Let's not even mention the rumours that Datuk Seri wants to sit on the matchday bench, with fans now finding themselves simply waiting for the next revelation.
It is great to see some extra colour in the game and Vida Beauty certainly provide that. If the company and club work together in the right way, they can surely do some great things together and set new standards for Malaysian football.
If not handled right, the Red Warriors, or whatever they are called now, are going to be the laughing stock of Malaysian football.
If this deal goes well, others can surely follow. Closer links between the corporate and footballing world in Malaysia are necessary if the country is to move forward in the region and on the continent.
But it has to be done professionally. What is happening up in Kelantan is threatening to enter circus territory. If it continues then the Red Warriors, or whatever they are now called, are going to be the laughing stock of Malaysian football.
In the end, though, all fans in the country will be left so red-faced that even the most potent Vida Beauty product will have no effect.