The rise of Johor Darul Ta'zim
When the referee blows his whistle to signal the end of the match between JDT and Bengaluru FC, the Tan Sri Dato Haji Hassan Yunos Stadium, which is also known as the Larkin Stadium for short, erupts in joy. Despite looking sluggish against the I-League side, the home side has just won the match 2-1 to qualify for the next qualifying round of the 2015 AFC Champions League. Confidence is sky high, and it suddenly looks plausible that the defending Malaysian Super League winners might just make it to the group stages. However, just three days later, the Southern Tigers are knocked out of the competition after losing to Bangkok Glass in Thailand, bringing them all down to earth.
On the bright side, they have the AFC Cup to play for following the elimination, which is a nice consolation. Plus, they have unfinished business in that AFC competition, having lost five and drawn one in their previous appearance as Johor FC in 2009. But on the not-so-bright side, keyboard warriors promptly rear their ugly heads, criticising the team for biting more than they can chew and participating in the tournament that no Malaysian team has ever qualified for the biggest tournament in Asia, since the tournament was launched in its current format in 2002. It is harsh of them to say that, especially when it is actually more accurate to say that no Malaysian team had even attempted to qualify for it in the first place… until JDT came along.
Besides being dependent on the FIFA ranking of their country of origin, a team usually has to win the top division of their league and prove that they have a good stadium and facilities to stand a chance to compete in the AFC Champions League. Between 2004 And 2014, Malaysian clubs only competed for the second-tier tournament, the AFC Cup. In seven of those years, Malaysia were actually ranked higher than their current spot of 154th.
Therefore, despite failing to reaching the group stages, the fact that JDT have managed to enter the qualification phase is an achievement itself. Furthermore, it is even more impressive when you consider that the club technically only came into existence just three years ago, but have continuously made ground-breaking changes in that short period of time, earning an astounding amount of respect (and scorn) and leaving other teams eating their dust. And it is all thanks to one man, or rather, a prince: Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, the Crown Prince of Johor.