Melaka's journey from Malaysian football purgatory back to the top flight
Melaka currently lead the Malaysia Premier League (MPL) standings with 42 points, establishing a five-point edge over nearest challenger JDT II.
They have won seven straight matches in the MPL, with their last defeat coming in early May, and need only two more wins from their five remaining matches to secure one of two promotion places.
Despite producing some of the best players in the country, they have never really met expectations
Melaka’s impressive form has come as a surprise as football experts tipped them to struggle after spending five seasons in the FAM Cup, the lowest tier in the league.
They also don’t boast much footballing pedigree in their long history, as their only real moment of glory came way back in 1983 when they won the Malaysian League, the precursor to the MSL.
They are the only state team yet to feature in a Malaysia Cup final, the oldest tournament in the country, which began in 1921.
Despite producing some of the best players in the country, including former national captains Soh Chin Aun and Shukor Adan and current Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee, they have never really met expectations in top tier football.
Melaka were left with minimal funding by the state government when they were relegated from the MPL to the FAM Cup in 2010.
Management couldn’t hold on to the club’s stars as they could no longer afford to pay high wages. Instead, they picked up youngsters and semi-retired players to represent the team.
The situation was going from bad to worse in 2012 when Melaka sacked their manager and dropped 15 players in April of that year.
They then suffered through five straight defeats to sit at the bottom of the FAM Cup table, leading to speculation some of their players were involved in match-fixing.
Only six players from the original squad were retained with 15 more former President’s Cup and state players signed to beef-up the squad during the transfer window.
Noor Azman Rahman, who had replaced Jamil Noor as the team manager, disclosed to the New Straits Times in 2012 that the team was doing poorly as its sponsor only wanted specific players to be used in matches.
It is common knowledge that match-fixers or bookies used registered companies, which they set-up, as a front to sponsor unsuspecting teams in the league.
However, it is now more difficult for bookies to manipulate matches following the proactive steps taken by the Football Association of Malaysia to eradicate match-fixing.
Even though they were taking on amateur clubs, Melaka still couldn’t leave their mark in their first four seasons in the FAM Cup.
Melaka finished sixth in 2011, followed by seventh, sixth and sixth again in the ensuing three campaigns.
The situation finally started changing for the better after 2014 when Melaka Chief Minister Datuk Seri Idris Haron injected more funds and hired Mat Zan Mat Aris as coach.
Mat Zan arrived with impressive credentials, having won the Malaysia Cup both as a player and a coach.
He was part of Kuala Lumpur’s winning teams between 1987-89 and also guided Terengganu to their only triumph in 2001 as a coach.
There is no secret behind Malacca’s success. If you have quality foreigners, you will strive in the MPL
His appointment turned out to be a master stroke as he led Melaka to promotion from the FAM Cup in his first season in 2015.
“It was magical last year for Melaka as we won our first title in 32 years,” Mat Zan said. “We were also the only team in the FAM Cup last year that attracted an average of 10,000 fans for home games.
“When I was hired in 2015, fans came to me and made me pledge to take Melaka football to greater heights.
“I took it as a challenge as Melaka fans were embarrassed with the performance of their state team.
“Melaka were struggling with rumours of match-fixing and lack of funding before I took over, but things have changed thanks to the management, who want to see the team make breakthroughs.”
Mat Zan, however, had to rebuild his squad for their return to the MPL this year. The coach realised he needed to inject new players and also hire quality foreigners in order to be competitive.
He dropped 80 per cent of the 2015 squad and hired new locals.
Montenegro’s Ilija Spasojevic, who previously played in Indonesia, compatriot Balsa Bozovic, Swede Labinot Harbuzi and South Korean Shin Jae Pil were also signed.
In the recently-concluded mid-season transfer window, Bozovic and Jae Pil were replaced by Chilean-born Yashir Pinto and Romanian Alexandru Tudose. Mat Zan also beefed up the squad with six locals.
Melaka are one of the few teams that has a keen interest in heritage players. Khair Jones, who grew up in New Zealand, is having a dream season with Melaka, where the defender’s performances have earned him three caps with the national team.
The club is also monitoring the progress of three other heritage players who are plying their trade in Australia and could make their debuts in the MSL next season.
Our management have informed us to focus on the MPL, as gaining promotion is now our priority
“There is no secret behind Melaka’s success. If you have quality foreigners, you will strive in the MPL. I am lucky that Melaka have good foreigners and our games are planned accordingly to suit them,” said Mat Zan.
Melaka must thank Spasojevic for their promising season as the Montenegrin has been exceptional with 23 goals so far.
However, Spasojevic has caught the eye of his former club Persib Bandung of Indonesia, who want him back and it remains to be seen whether he will stay in Malaysia next year.
No team that has earned promotion from the FAM Cup has ever won the MPL the following season, or even finished second. Melaka stand a very good chance of achieving that this year.
“We want to play in the MSL next year,” Mat Zan said. “That is our goal.
“We are currently tied up with the Malaysia Cup [Melaka are third in their group behind Felda United and Negeri Sembilan with two matches remaining] and it has been quite hectic.
“However, our management have informed us to focus on the MPL, as gaining promotion is now our priority.”
A decade on from their last appearance in Malaysia’s top flight, that seems a reasonable approach.
Main photo: Melaka United