Foreigners in Malaysian football – are they part of the problem?

Foreigners play a pivotal role in Malaysian football, dominating the scoring charts and often proving the difference in the hunt for trophies. But are they doing anything to help the country's local talent?

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In an article earlier this year, FourFourTwo explored the financial requirements of participating in the Malaysia Super League (MSL), discovering that not only is it a costly exercise, most clubs are perpetually losing money and operating in the red.

One of the major cost drivers is the salaries spent on foreign players, estimated by a trusted industry expert to be an average of RM90,000 per for a Super League player and RM45,000 for the Malaysia Premier League.

Throw in the agent and middle-men fees and the whole scenario can get bloated and sometimes ugly, resulting in cases of unpaid salaries

Net salaries, however, do not sum up the whole picture as there are other costs involved when hiring an expatriate.

Work permits, relocation costs, housing, travel, children’s schooling, insurance and many other unseen costs can all be further incidentals when hiring a foreigner.

These other costs can easily increase the amount spent by 30-50 per cent.

Throw in the agent and middle-men fees and the whole scenario can get bloated and sometimes ugly, resulting in cases of unpaid salaries and the mistreatment of foreign players being brought to the Football Association of Malaysia’s (FAM) status committee.

Liberian Francis Forkey Doe

Even though the costs are high and clubs would be financially better off fielding a team of local players, they are left with little choice as the available home-grown talent isn’t on par and would leave them unable to compete with teams that field the allowed four foreigners in their starting 11.

Clubs are caught in a situation where if they don’t invest, they won’t be competitive and risk losing streaks, the fans’ wrath and potential relegation.

As most clubs are political bodies, losing is not an option for those who have campaigned hard to ascend into the seats of power as their personal reputations and egos are on the line. Survive they must and this is why the vicious cycle of hiring foreigners cannot be broken at club level.

The current price-tag of RM90,000 per month is not where the natural equilibrium should be.

Clubs could help the situation, collectively and individually, by pushing down prices. There is ample supply of foreign talent capable of producing in the Malaysian leagues.

Clubs should also look at the opportunity cost of using foreigners as those funds could be used to run academies and programmes to scout and develop local talent for the longer-term.

Hariss has been a star on both sides of the Causeway. Photo: FFT

From a commercial perspective, clubs should also realise they would be better off hiring players from the ASEAN region as they have more marketing value than those from Africa and South America.

Why not recruit the best players from Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam? They could then produce a return in terms of interest, merchandising and even gate attendance.

The cases of Indonesian Andik Vermansyah at Selangor and Singaporean Hariss Harun at Johor Darul Ta’zim are testament to this.

Football Malaysia LLP (FMLLP) should be taking the lead and actively promoting this as it could help the MSL become the most interesting league in the region, increasing its overall commercial value.

On a side note, this writer also thinks the FAM and FMLLP should be looking at allowing Singapore and Brunei to be part of the league as it would increase its fanbase and give the added dimension of competitiveness which in the long run would be beneficial to all teams.

The decision to discontinue Lions XII’s participation in 2016 was an ill-judged, inward looking move which showed the short-term mentality of not only FAM but certain sections of Malaysian fans who campaigned for their removal.

The argument of using foreigners in the league is not only one of financial viability, but also whether it is for the best interests of the nation.

[NEXT: Crunching the local vs foreign numbers]