JDT success doesn’t gloss over Malaysia’s myriad problems

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre reckons JDT’s serial trophy wins can’t hide the fact Malaysian football still lags far behind its regional rivals.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that we’re smack bang in the midst of a period of dominance from Asian ‘super clubs’ and as the likes of Guangzhou Evergrande, Kashima Antlers and Jeonbuk Hyundai continue to be the pace setters in the north there’s little question who the ASEAN kingpins are.

With a fourth consecutive Super League crown already safely in their keeping, Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim put the final layer of wrapping on a Piñata full of titles as they eased past Kedah to claim the one trophy that they really wanted – the Malaysia Cup.

Unique not just amongst Southeast Asian nations but indeed most of the global football fraternity given that this historic cup competition holds more weight than the league itself, the victory was far more than just another title but a branding stamp that JDT is something truly special.

While goals in either half from Aidil Zafuan and Gonzalo Cabrera sealed the 2-0 win it was far from a straightforward affair against an impressive Kedah outfit who went step for step with their more illustrious opponents for much of the contest but who were undone by two clinical finishes at the same time as they struck the post on numerous occasions.

The southern Malaysian club has been on a comet-like arc of success since the arrival of Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim barely half a decade ago and they are the leading lights in Malaysian football in pretty much whatever category you care to name.

JDT’s off-field facilities are second to none, the training ground is a modern affair, the dressing rooms have the smallest details considered – including the club crest on the doors of the showers – and construction is already underway at a brand-new state-of-the-art stadium.

There are extensive youth programs in place, record commercial deals, a rabid fan base and confirmed and planned academy structures – both at home and in Europe. Then there’s the list of accolades collected on the pitch.

No doubt set to take a central location in the trophy room will be this latest title that was won in one of Southeast Asia’s showpiece events, where a packed house at the Shah Alam and a pre-match buildup that rivals the Super Bowl was the perfect backdrop for the latest coronation of the southern club.

As much as it may become tedious for others what this wave of success is doing is dragging other clubs up closer to their level and with the more strident entry criteria for next year’s Super League we’re seeing increased professionalism both on and off the pitch and Kedah were a good example of that on Saturday evening.

Leaving aside the pre-match fiasco surrounding ticketing, on the pitch the Red Eagles showed that they’re more than capable of playing the same kind of up-tempo, pass and move, style of football that JDT have been honing and in decent stretches of the contest they did it just as well as the heavy pre-match favourites.

The sobering reality of the win though is that although JDT were a shade better than one of the leading domestic aspirants to their crown there’s still a feeling that they’re not at the same level technically as many of the top clubs from their regional neighbours.

For close observers of Southeast Asian football that’s not so much a thought as it is in plain sight.

In my opinion, the most exciting young attacking talent in Malaysian football is 20-year-old JDT winger Safawi Rasid – a star of various youth teams – yet whilst he’s good enough to be called up for the full national team he still can’t crack even his club squad for a match of this magnitude and you have to wonder what’s going on there.

Although both JDT and Kedah were well structured tactically the issue that’s been blighting the national side for years was also in clear view here and that’s that the technical level of the local players is, frankly speaking, poor.

Far too often under little pressure we saw pass after pass misplaced and when the pressure was on there was often an inability to find a way out of tight spaces and they are qualities that the vast majority of Thai, Indonesian and especially Vietnamese players have in abundance.

You get a sense that JDT is also well aware of these issues given the heavy emphasis they’ve placed on youth development and it’s likely that focus will see them continue to be top of the pile for quite a while to come.

Yet with jewels like Safawi in their collection it’s hard to find a justification as to why he wasn’t included in a side where only two domestic players under the age of 25 featured in that Malaysia Cup victory.

While it’s easy to skirt around these technical concerns in the glow of another title – and they’re unlikely to be mentioned in many quarters – they’re absolutely well worth bearing in mind as the future of Malaysian football on a broader stage will depend not just on clubs being hoarders of domestic titles but rather producers and providers of and for a new generation of technicians.

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