Gamba Osaka tie a yardstick for JDT’s progress

JDT’s AFC Champions League playoff match is likely to serve as a reminder of just how far Malaysian football needs to go before it can compete with north Asia’s top dogs.

The times were certainly very different, the quality of players and preparation was far from what it is today and their opponent was in the midst of one of the bloodiest wars known to mankind.

As Johor Darul Ta’zim head to Japan for a shot at history in the final round of qualification for the ‘modern’ guise of the Asian Champions League this week they might want to look for some kind of archival reference point in the form of a domestic foe – both for the rise and then the fall.

Whilst not a single Malaysian club has reached the group stage of the current version of the ACL, Selangor were the bedrock upon which the original foundation of the competition was constructed.

Indeed, they were participants in the very first match ever played in the old Asian Champions Cup back in 1967, a tournament from which the ACL was born just after the turn of the century.

That came a dozen years after the start of the Vietnam War; a period during which North Vietnam retreated into the footballing wilderness whilst South Vietnam emerged as a regional powerhouse.

The national team finished fourth in the first two editions of the Asian Cup, won the forerunner to the SEA Games in 1959 and churned out some strong club teams which meant that the challenge facing Selangor was a stern one.

Selangor were Malaysia’s continental trailblazers.

Yet, guided by a man synonymous with one of the better eras of Malaysian football, Edwin Dutton, and captained by Abdullah Yeop Noordin, Selangor emerged 2-1 aggregate winners, and then saw off Bangkok Bank in the second round and Korean side Tungsten Mining in the semifinals.

That set up a date in the final of the maiden tournament with Hapoel Tel Aviv, in the days when Israel was not only an AFC member but also a powerhouse and in the end they were too strong, pipping Selangor 2-1 in a one-off final in neutral Bangkok a week before Christmas.

Perak failed to emerge from a group containing eventual champions, Maccabi Tel Aviv, in the following tournament two years later before Selangor also missed the knockout stage in 1970.

Perak didn’t win a single match in 1971 and with teams withdrawing in protest at Israel’s presence the year after there was no regular continental competition held again until 1985.

By then it was clear that Malaysian teams were no real match for a wave of bigger and more professional clubs emerging elsewhere on the continent and only a handful of clubs even made it out of the first round of the tournament.

Selangor bookended Malaysian’s involvement in the competition when they became the last team from the country to participate in the tournament proper, where they were thrashed 7-0 on aggregate by Chinese club Dalian Shide in 2001.

It took until 2015 for another club to even earn a qualification spot with JDT falling in the second round both that year and last to Thai opposition so they’ve already established a new mark by reaching the ‘playoff round’ for the first time.

So, how soon will it be before we see a Malaysian team back in action in the main draw of the event?

As touched on last week, the nature of the playoff round is firmly stacked against the smaller clubs who emerge from the first couple of preliminary rounds with a one-off match away at either a Korean, Chinese or Japanese team and JDT are going to have a hell of a time trying to contain Japanese powerhouse Gamba Osaka.

Japan’s Gamba Osaka are AFC CL regulars.

It will be though a good measuring stick of where the most dominant team domestically is at and just how far they need to go to compete with the bigger teams from the north.

In terms of facilities and even some aspects surrounding the professionalisation of the clubs the gap is not so large, but where the needle shifts is in the raw technical skills and the more cerebral tactical application between the two teams.

It was hard to tell whether it was the adjustment to a new coach at short notice or some more underlying issues, but in the win last week over Bangkok United the team looked rushed, far from composed and were clearly nowhere near the same level, technically, as their sharper Thai opponents.

That they emerged victorious on penalties said a lot about the ‘resolve’ and ‘application’ of the club when faced with a superior opponent, but this Gamba team is several levels up from Bangkok.

Even with the J.League club, which won the 2008 ACL, in pre-season and having only played once thus far it’s difficult to see how JDT will even manage to keep this competitive.

The one hope is that perhaps Gamba don’t play their strongest team but even so their second stringers are still more than capable of winning this by more than a handy margin and if the first-choice team is named then this could push close to record territory.

This is though where JDT has dreamed of being and the time is now to see just how they stack up and what needs to keep being honed, refined and developed as Malaysia’s best club look to push into being a serious regional and continental force.