Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah will end his association with the FA of Malaysia on Saturday and, as Timesport finds out in reviewing his bittersweet journey, he can leave with his head held high
THEY say timing is everything. That, there’s a time to step up to the challenge, a time to prolong the fight, and a time to fold up and walk away.
The past — both the distant and the not too distant — has revealed that Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah couldn’t have picked a more wicked time in Malaysian football to occupy its most uninviting and maligned position. That, of president of the FA of Malaysia (FAM).
He knew it, and so did a host of others who have been agonisingly watching the free fall of Malaysian football to its present state of despondency.
But Tengku Abdullah stepped up to the challenge because he believed he was the change agent that Malaysian football needed. He had the will, and an 11-point manifesto, which he tried to put in place, to begin salvage operations.
In that manifesto — that was to have categorically and progressively transformed the battered face of Malaysian football were — FAM governance, privatisation of the Malaysian Super League, stakeholder engagement, technical development, improving Fifa ranking, building a competition pyramid, enhancing financial distribution, protecting football from bookies, referees development, forming an independent judicial body, and even a KPI (key performance index) for the president.
His first task as president, when he took over after beating Darul Ta’zim owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim in May 2014, was governance. To this effect, almost immediately, Tengku Abdullah sought the assistance of Fifa to help restructure FAM’s frail administrative machinery.
Responding to the call, a team of Fifa experts spent months in Wisma FAM, putting together a module that would work for the Malaysian football climate.
But as it turned out, and true to their pedestrian form, the ‘warlords’ in FAM — while displaying the famous Malaysian hospitality to their Fifa guests — sadly retained the mediocre system of governance that not only allowed them to cling on to their jobs, but also one that didn’t challenge their feeble minds.
That was the first body blow for his carefully-thought of plan for redemption. And while he was still recovering from that disappointment, the Dollah Salleh-led national team’s humiliating 10-0 defeat to the United Arab Emirates in September 2015, turned out to have more devastating effects.
Political and sports leaders were quick to assign blame, and it landed squarely on the shoulders of Tengku Abdullah.
There were even threats of political intervention against the body and calls for resignation echoed from parties who themselves are quick to criticise but slow to change. Never mind, if these ‘concerned’ parties were totally clueless about Fifa’s statute on government interference.
But the suspicion is that, these threats and calls that were unfair, unwarranted and unqualified, was the proverbial salt on the open wound that impelled Tengku Abdullah to prematurely announce his resignation. One that he said later was to make way for new blood to take football to greater heights.
And the sad part of it all was, he took the fall for the blunder made by the inward-thinking members of his exco.
The exco, who probably thought they were doing the patriotic thing, voted for chief coach Dollah.
Tengku Abdullah, who wasn’t keen on the Malaysian, offered the option of choosing from two German coaches. Even if the Germans were not successful in the end, at least the blame would have been justifiably placed with the president. But he was made to fall on a sword that was not of his doing.
What was even sadder was that — not one member of the exco — neither assumed responsibility for the blunder, nor defended their president who had no part in that mindless decision.
The members of his exco just stood by and watched their president being maligned by all and sundry.
Incredibly, these critics are the same ones who have little or no experience in managing a national body. As the saying goes, ‘Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’.
But naivete, real or otherwise, should not give way to ignorance. The truth of Malaysian football politics — it’s the warlords of the State FAs and a couple in FAM, who are the ones really in power.
Tengku Abdullah’s folly, and that of his predecessor, Sultan Ahmad Shah, was allowing them to fester, and apply a throttlehold on the governance of Malaysian football.
Dictatorship, was what could have ended this perennial malaise. But neither Sultan Ahmad, nor Tengku Abdullah subscribed to that philosophy of governance.
And as these state and club leaders remained commanding in their kingdoms, totally neglecting their sole responsibility of running leagues, developing football, and producing a broad base of world class players, the FAM presidents have had to take the fall for the failures of the national team.
But Tengku Abdullah, whose dream was to see Malaysia in the Fifa World Cup finals during his tenure, can walk away knowing that he had left some significant imprints in the evolution of Malaysian football.
And Tengku Abdullah, a Fifa exco member, might yet have a hand in Malaysia’s induction into the World Cup, by being part of Fifa’s decision-making body that decided on a 48-team tournament after 2022.
Asia is fighting for seven places, opening the path wider for Malaysia’s entry.
Through his involvement with Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation, Malaysia were presented with better development opportunities, by way of financial assistance.
As a reformist, he led the evolution of Malaysian football from its amateur status to what it is now, being fully professional. The first baby step began in 1989 with the inception of the semi-pro league, gradually easing into a full professional league in 1994.
But well before the inception of the semi-pro league, Tengku Abdullah — who was well ahead of his time — had in 1982 became the first official to sign on foreign players, namely Singaporeans T.Pathmanathan, and R.Suriamoorthy, for Pahang. Then came the Thais, Piyapong Pue-on, Ronnachai Sayomchai, and Vitoon Kijmongkolsak.
And with foreign players from other parts of the world converging on the Malaysian League soon after that, the complexion of the M-League changed, in more ways than one.
It was a bold move to professionalise Malaysian football because the structure it was built on, was amateur at best. The standard of the game, the mindsets, and the administrators were anything but professional.
But the adamant Tengku Abdullah pushed his agenda through, and he was vindicated as the M-League became the most popular in the region and among the better-run leagues in Asia.
Unfortunately its popularity was also its bane, as bookies swarmed into the league, making a killing from illegal betting and match-fixing.
Forced by the ugly circumstances to be cruel to be kind, Tengku Abdullah led the crusade against football bribery that saw the banishment of more than 100 players and officials in 1994.
If he was left to his own devices, there would have been a lot more that Tengku Abdullah could have achieved for Malaysian football. But mediocrity in the football ranks, and a bungling national team stood in his way.
And it was time for him to fold up, and move on.