KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 – Critics say a campaign to boost Malaysian football fortunes with naturalized players has failed with the national team no closer to a first World Cup appearance and soul-searching on the state of the game. game in the country.
Football is one of the most popular sports in this country of more than 30 million people, but internationally Malaysia is a minnow – 154th in the FIFA rankings, one place below tiny Andorra.
Long-suffering Malaysian fans had high hopes when football authorities launched the naturalization scheme in 2018, ahead of 2022 World Cup qualifiers in Qatar, and several foreign-born players were granted citizenship. citizenship.
But the program was suspended in August after Malaysia’s World Cup tilt failed again, with naturalized players taking some of the criticism.
Already naturalized players can still play for the country, but no new ones will come through the door in the near future.
Santokh Singh, who played for the national team in the 1970s and 1980s – better times – said there should be renewed interest in training local players.
“We have so many good local players who are able to do better than foreign players…they don’t get the chance to play,” the 69-year-old told AFP.
“The naturalization of players is stupid.”
Malaysia is among a number of countries that have sought to raise the level of their national team by granting citizenship to foreign players.
From China and Japan to Mexico and even Spain, it’s become a growing trend, with Brazilian footballers particularly popular.
But it has caused controversy, with some, like wealthy Qatar, being accused of stacking their teams with foreigners with few ties to the country they represent.
– ‘Invaders from Brazil’ –
In 2007, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter warned of “invaders from Brazil” flooding national teams and the governing body tightened the rules.
Those without ancestral ties to a country must have resided there for at least five years before qualifying to play for its national team.
In the case of Malaysia, Gambian-born Mohamadou Sumareh was the first player to be granted citizenship through the naturalization drive, making his national team debut in 2018.
He started playing for Malaysian clubs in 2013 and is currently the winger for Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), who won the top-flight Super League eight times from 2014.
He was followed by Liridon Krasniqi, born in the former Yugoslavia, and Guilherme de Paula, born in Brazil.
Players who grew up overseas but have a Malaysian parent and decide to move back to Malaysia, where they have a better chance of playing international football, are more common.
The naturalization plan has come under heavy criticism after Malaysia’s defeat in World Cup qualifiers against Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates last June dashed their hopes of reaching Qatar.
Two months later, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) declared the program suspended.
The organization plans to “conduct further studies on several aspects of the program,” FAM secretary general Mohamad Saifuddin Abu Bakar told AFP.
– Background issues –
Some believe Malaysia should focus on addressing deep-rooted issues, rather than overemphasizing the failures of the naturalization project.
“I think there are bigger structural issues in bringing about long-term success,” Steve Darby, a football coach and consultant who has spent years working in Asia, including Malaysia, told AFP.
“Improve training facilities as well as stadium grounds.”
Although they have never been serious rivals for the top teams in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, the Malaysian national team has seen better days.
The country qualified for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, but pulled out when Malaysia joined the US-led boycott of the Games to protest the invasion of Afghanistan.
The national team won places in the Asian Cup, which pits the region’s top national teams against each other every four years, in 1976 and 1980.
Not everyone criticizes the naturalization project, believing that it can have good results if it is part of a broader strategy.
B. Sathiananthan, Malaysia’s national coach from 2007 to 2009, said it was understandable that coaches sometimes turn to politics.
“If you are given a two-year contract, do you think you can wait for the local players to be fit?” he said.