Why the Harimau Muda project is flawed to begin with
Sir Matt Busby’s famous saying “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” is a philosophy followed from Manchester to Munich, Ajax to Barcelona, Southampton to Tottenham and, as we saw in the recent Frenz International Cup, Japan to Argentina. Each of those clubs mentioned believes in developing their own football academies and, when a player’s education and skills suggest he’s good enough, it’s time to give them a chance in senior squads.
The results can be spectacular, such as Manchester United’s famous five of Beckham, Butt, Giggs and the Nevilles; Ajax’s 1996 UEFA Champions League team; and Bayern Munich’s all-conquering academy graduates Muller, Lahm, Badstubber, Schweinsteiger and Alaba. For more recent examples, five Tottenham academy graduates played in the 5-3 mauling of Chelsea, and Southampton have fought their way from the brink of extinction to the brink of the Champions League based on academy products alone.
The Malaysian model, however, is very different. There are academies – with the Frenz United Academy a standout example – and there are good young players. But far from cherry picking the best to see if they can make the step up to compete with the big boys, the model in recent years has been to lump a group of players together, plop them into a professional set-up, and expect them to thrive as a group. It’s unrealistic.
You could point out that Thailand’s success in last year’s AFF Suzuki Cup or K. Rajagobal’s masterstroke with Malaysia in the 2010 event showed that groups of youngsters can thrive. However, it would be difficult to argue that both teams would not struggle to get the same kind of results or even fluency of play when playing against tougher oppositions.
In Singapore’s S.League this season, the Malaysia Under-22 team a.k.a. the Harimau Muda B are at the bottom of the 10-team league table, while their Singaporean counterpart, Courts Young Lions are just above them. It would be a major surprise if either finished higher than eighth come the season’s end. Both teams plus the so-called development team in the Malaysian Super League, the LionsXII, are playing in professional leagues in search of the Holy Grail of “future football success”.
Age-restricted teams are counter-productive
To me, of all the solutions in place to address “the future”, the daftest idea of the lot is to play age-restricted teams in professional leagues because nobody wins in this scenario. Unless there’s a particularly good crop of players, the young team invariably ends up at the bottom of the league. Avoiding a hammering becomes the agenda, rather than learning effectively on how to manage and win games. The better players in a squad have no one to learn from thus cannot improve, while the lesser players are exposed time and time again, and rarely develop. Critics could throw me the line of the LionsXII’s 2013 Super League success, to which I would retort that any team possessing the skills of players in their late twenties such as Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan isn’t truly something you can call a development team.
In Malaysia, it is far from Busby's philosophy and more like “if you’re selected for Bukit Jalil at the age of 14 or 15, we expect you to succeed no matter the fact that this flies against all other evidence throughout the sporting world”. We are in a situation where the Harimau Muda coaches are expected to select a group for Bukit Jalil Sports School in their early teens, and we’re surprised when this same group of players does not all turn out to be Championship-winning professionals eight years later when we should be celebrating the coaching skills that have enabled them to be able to compete at all.
Furthermore, age-restricted teams diminish the quality of a league. Where’s the glory in beating a team of kids? What credibility can the S.League possess when it is the playground of youths and second teams from Japan? Even in Malaysia, where is the sporting fair play for Singapore in being unable to match their rivals by preventing them from signing foreign players? A league that takes itself seriously simply shouldn’t allow “second teams” or “youth teams” into its top flight.
In terms of developing players from such age-restricted teams, we need to realise that young players rarely come through in big groups. The examples I listed earlier are famous precisely because they are exceptions. As two examples of the reality of youth development, I offer evidence based on two conversations I have had in recent weeks.
Abbas Saad was part of the 1987 Australian team that played in the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship. West Germany, who finished runners-up, came up in conversation, so I looked up the German squad from 1987 onward. Guess what? Only three of that 18-man squad in that tournament went on to become full internationals, and only one, Andreas Muller, became a household name.
More recently, Liverpool Under-18 reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2009. Four-and-a-half years on, you’d expect many of that squad of 16 to have progressed to the senior squad. However, only one, Andre Wisdom, is with a Premier League team, but he is not getting much game time. The rest such as Alex Kacaniklic, Tom Ince and Daniel Ayala are playing in England’s lower divisions, Germany’s Bundesliga II, Scotland, Wales, Australia and Finland.
The point of both comparisons is that players develop at different stages. Although the Liverpool youth team did well, to have kept them together as a group would have been disastrous and counter-productive because each player has to play at a level suitable to their skills, which, in my opinion, brings us to the biggest problem in Southeast Asia: there are not enough leagues or levels to play in. There are not enough clubs or leagues for coaches/selectors at all ages to recruit players from or test them in competitive action, and not enough variety of leagues for players to find their own level.
The huge gap between the UK and Southeast Asia
On a recent trip to the UK, I bought the Non-League Football newspaper, which has results and standings from literally hundreds of organised open-aged leagues. Out of the 83 counties (a very rough equivalent of the Malaysian states) in England, most of them have at least one league in each of the ten levels that league football is broken into. Each of those leagues has several divisions, and to get promotion to the next tier, there are basic club requirements, ground standards and criteria that must be met.
On the same trip, I also took the opportunity of going to watch a Northern Premier league Division One match involving Spennymoor and Prescot Cables, the non-league team closest to where I was brought up. They play in the eighth tier of the English football league system. In the match I chose to watch, seven of the starting XI had come through their youth set-up. At Prescot’s Hope Street Ground, if the kids are good enough, they will be given a chance to play. And for the very good ones, there is a chance to attract the interest of local clubs like Marine (seventh tier), Runcorn (fifth), Southport (fourth), or even League Two side Tranmere. For those who are not enough, the Liverpool Senior League at the tenth tier is an option.
The Prescot vs Spennymoor game was a goalless draw and it was cold – gosh, it was cold – and I questioned my sanity. However, because it was a club dear to my heart, I loved every second of it as I drank my hot bovril in the clubhouse after the match, and got laughed at for coming from Malaysia to watch a game of football at Level 8.
Why is this relevant to this side of the world? Junior Eldstal, who used to play for Farnborough (sixth tier) and Slimbridge (eighth tier), is now a full international in Malaysia.
The organisation and facilities of eighth-tier football in the UK is on par, if not better, than the vast majority of top-flight clubs I have been to in Southeast Asia, where there are simply not enough leagues to play in, and nowhere near enough focus made on making clubs a place for people to congregate and support their local teams.
In Singapore, beyond the National Football League, the only organised leagues are the strictly amateur ESPZEN and Cosmo Leagues. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, the state leagues remain a mystery to me. When I moved to live in Kuala Lumpur many years ago, I searched for a team to train with, but I found precious little information. There ARE state leagues, but they are incredibly limited and incredibly well hidden. And why a town the size of Petaling Jaya doesn’t have a team representing it is something I just cannot – and do not think ever will – comprehend.
The point? Whilst there is no structure provided by the states or the football associations for clubs and leagues to survive, there will also always be a lack of clubs fully prepared to set themselves up as centres of the community. And a lack of clubs (and leagues) will means a lack of choice surrounding the talents coming through the ranks. I am not decrying what have been done by the coaches in Southeast Asia, nor saying that there isn’t any talent in Southeast Asia. However, the fact remains that the results are no better than when the best talents were liberally spread across the underperforming states.
As Astro Kasih’s ‘Kem Bola’ initiative has shown, there are thousands and thousands of kids around the country who want to play football on an organised basis, but precious few opportunities are given. Leagues such as the 1MCC League or the Junior Football League in Subang Jaya are rare examples of organised leagues.
The difference with the situation in the UK is incredible. There, sports clubs are part of the society. Here, they’re not – and yet the politicians and the public expect results at the top end of the game to be similar.
(Pictures: Jason Kang, asiana.my, Astro Kasih)