Southeast Asia Malaysia

Can Sabah FC Challenge the Malaysian Football Elite?

Six matches. Four wins. Two defeats. Nine goals were scored. Four were conceded. Second in the league. It’s safe to say that Sabah FC are having a stellar start to their Liga Super Malaysia campaign, with the Rhinos equal on points with leaders Johor Darul Ta’zim – albeit with the Southern Tigers having played two games less.

Perennial strugglers since the inception of the Liga Super in 2004, Sabah last enjoyed some measure of success ironically in the two years preceding the current format of the Malaysian top flight. The Rhinos were Malaysia Cup runners-up in 2002 and 2003, while also winning bronze by finishing third in the 2002 Liga Perdana 1 season. After that, Sabah established themselves as a second-tier club in Malaysian football – being relegated out of the Liga Super twice in the past 17 years and spending a total of 12 years in the second-tier Liga Premier Malaysia.

After enduring a 7-year exile from the Liga Super, Sabah returned back to the top-flight in the 2019 season, but their two seasons in the Liga Super that came afterward were an arduous struggle. Sabah finished 10th in the shortened 2020 season and 9th in the 2021 season, both after brushes with the drop. It seems that the team from Borneo Malaya are set for a period of mediocrity in the Liga Super, however, all of that changed after the arrival of Ong Kim Swee.

Affectionately called “OKS,” Ong succeeded Indonesian legend Kurniawan Dwi Yulianto at the Likas Stadium hot-seat and the former Malaysia national team head coach managed to steady the ship in the remainder of the 2021 season. Then, the 2022 off-season provided Ong with the opportunity to make his mark on his squad.

Last season’s key players in Indonesia international Saddil Ramdani, South Korean defender Park Tae-soo, veteran attacker Amri Yahyah, and Sabahan stalwarts Alto Linus and Rawilson Batuil were retained. New foreign talents in Brazilian defender Jackson de Souza, Brazilian striker Neto Pessoa, and Japanese forward Taiki Kagayama were brought in, however, it was Ong’s new local players who managed to attract some attention towards Sabah.

Experienced goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat was brought in from Melaka United, while Kedah Darul Aman’s charismatic captain Baddrol Bakhtiar was also signed, with the veteran midfielder resuming his role as captain at the new club. Defender Dominic Tan was snatched from Police Tero in the Thai League 1, while Nazirul Naim, formerly a feature in the Perak FC defense, was also signed. Last but not least, Gary Steven Robbat, the former JDT midfielder who had once trained with Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund, was also brought in to reinforce the Sabah engine room.

Ong knew all too well the capabilities of his local players, having worked alongside them in the Malaysia national team. He had dedicated 10 years of his life working in various capacities with the Harimau Malaya, meaning that he had overseen the growth of his players firsthand.

OKS’ new-look Sabah did start the season on the wrong foot after they had lost 1-0 at home to newly-promoted Negeri Sembilan FC. However, as time went on, the squad started to gel together nicely and the Rhinos racked up four consecutive wins in all competitions, three times in the league and knocking out Liga M3 side Respect FC in the Malaysia FA Cup first round.

A 2-0 defeat away at Kuala Lumpur City proved to be a slight hindrance, as on Sunday Sabah turned on the heat in their latest match, dismantling a Kedah side who had finished as runners-up in the previous Liga Super season. Amri scored a hat-trick while Tae-soo added one goal as Sabah ran out 4-0 winners, with Saddil, a mainstay during the Kurniawan era, once again impressing with an assist. The former Persela Lamongan man had been in fine form despite the change in management, having previously guided Sabah to a 1-0 win over Sarawak United in the first top-flight Borneo Derby in 10 years earlier this month.

Sabah may have yet to face the other big boys of Malaysian football – namely JDT, Selangor FC, Terengganu FC, and Sri Pahang FC – however, if they retain that swagger and that swashbuckling style from that Kedah demolition job, one could confidently say that the Rhinos are set to become this season’s Liga Super dark horses.