The foreign infatuation: Why Southeast Asian coaches shouldn’t be forgotten

The saying goes there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but often statistics can help paint a picture of a particular landscape. When it comes to the opportunities for local coaches in Southeast Asia, they certainly do just that.

When looking at the last decade (2007-2016) in Southeast Asia’s five biggest leagues (Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore), we can see the changing landscape before our very eyes.

In the first five years (2007-2011), 19 of the 25 league titles – a total of 76 per cent – were won by local, domestic coaches.

In my time working in Asia there is a view that those who have trained in Europe have a kind of competence that you might not find in Asia

In the last five years (2012-2016), only 10 of the 24 (Indonesia had one season cancelled in 2015) have been won by local coaches, a total of 42 per cent.

The trend in Southeast Asia, clearly, is to have a foreign coach, someone it is assumed that has a higher tactical and technical ability than any local candidate.

“There’s this idea that foreign is better,” Andy Roxburgh, the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) technical director, told FourFourTwo.

“The foreign guy has a bit of romance, (officials in Southeast Asia) don’t really know all the details, they just hear it’s whoever from Spain or Germany (and think) ‘oh he must be good’, and of course that’s not always the case.

“In my time working in Asia there is a view that those who have trained in Europe have a kind of competence that you might not find in Asia.”

Should more local coaches be given a chance?

That seems to be a view supported by the new Football Association of Malaysia president, Tunku Sultan Ismail, otherwise known as TMJ.

He has long held the view that Malaysia needs foreign expertise, bringing the type of experience and training he is adamant doesn’t currently exist in the country.

If there is a foreign coach with records of success, I will allow my players to train with him, because I know they can learn under him

- Tunku Ismail

In September last year, before he took office at the FAM, TMJ withdrew his Johor Darul Ta'zim II players from a national training camp with then-coach Ong Kim Swee, claiming: “They (FAM) wanted players to train for a longer duration to be better under the management of Ong Kim Swee.

“Even if players trained for four months in the national team, they will still continue to play with that similar style. That's the level of quality Ong Kim Swee has.

“If there is a foreign coach with records of success, I will allow my players to train with him, because I know they can learn under him.”

A year earlier he claimed Johor FA would make funds available “to hire a foreign coach who is more qualified to guide our national team” after a run of poor results under the coach at that time, Dollah Salleh.

Since taking office, TMJ has hired Portugal’s Nelo Vingada as head coach of Malaysia, but has installed one of the country's brightest young coaches, Tan Cheng Hoe, who came in at No.5 on our list this year, as his assistant to learn under the experienced European mentor.

TMJ has been quite vocal on his preference for foreign coaches

Coaching education is no doubt a significant factor and it’s an area where Asia is attempting to catch up to the rest of the world, particularly Europe and South America.

“The standard of coach education (in Europe) has risen dramatically in the last 20 years,” Roxburgh, a former technical director for UEFA who introduced many of their coaching education programmes, explained.

Sometimes I don’t blame the clubs. Sometimes when you appoint a local coach in a big club they don’t produce results

- Ong Kim Swee

“So there’s no doubt that in terms of coach education, Europe has an advantage there. This is one of the reasons why people think if they’re getting a coach from Europe he’s very well trained and very competent.

“In Asia, although many countries are very good at coach education, maybe it’s not viewed in the same way that it has been in Europe.”

In a region that is obsessed with European football, much more so than the local variant, it’s perhaps no surprise club owners and associations are looking towards Europe and South America, a view shared by current Malaysia U23 coach Ong.

“Sometimes I don’t blame the clubs. Sometimes when you appoint a local coach in a big club they don’t produce results,” he told FourFourTwo.

“Here in Malaysia, I’m not looking down at our local coaches, but they don’t grab the opportunity. You have to grab the opportunity.

“So now we have P. Maniam (at Selangor, No.11 on this year’s list), we have Tan Cheng Hoe, (and) I believe we have a few more (who can do well) if they are given a chance. If we are going to give them an opportunity I believe they will do well.”

Tan is one local coach with growing credentials

But as Ong rightly points out, local coaches can only get better if given a shot, and what those on our list have shown is that when given the chance, many will thrive.

Pleasingly, almost all on our list are up-and-coming and developing coaches with long careers ahead of them.

As more and more local coaches have success, slowly the perception that local coaches are vastly inferior to foreign equivalents will slowly disappear and fans and administrators will trust that appointing a local coach isn’t displaying a ‘lack of ambition’, but exactly the opposite.

Before Southeast Asia’s best coaches can think of exporting their wares, whether that be to other Southeast Asian nations, elsewhere in Asia or even one day in Europe, they need to succeed at home.

Only when they have built a reputation will other suitors come calling.

All it takes is for one to succeed and quickly others will follow.

“I think in my position definitely, I am looking at other opportunities not only in Malaysia, but of course if there is any offer in Southeast Asia,” Ong explained.

“You know how big the Thailand league is, Indonesia, even the Philippines. So if there’s a breakthrough for the local Malaysian coach to be there, I think others will follow suit.”

But as the trend towards foreign coaches continues, there is one statistic that is worth keeping in mind for the truly ambitious associations in Southeast Asia – no nation has ever won the World Cup with a foreign coach.

Main photo: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo. Remaining photos: Asiana.my