Southeast Asia Malaysia

Is the Liga Super No Longer “Super?”

Picture this – a league where its champions were able to acquire players from the top leagues of Europe and South America, while at the opposite end of the table exists a team that conceded more than 100 goals and even let in double-digit goals in a match where they had initially went 2-0 up. If you think such a scenario was something out of one’s imagination, think again – that was how the 2023 Liga Super Malaysia season unfolded.

Johor Darul Ta’zim, as expected, lifted the league title for the 10th consecutive time, thus further cementing their absurd dominance over the Malaysian football scene. The Southern Tigers, with their immense wealth and talent at their disposal, are very likely to make it 11 in a row at the end of the upcoming 2024/25 campaign, and the world record of 15 league titles in a row – achieved by Vanuatu’s Talea FC – was very much in JDT’s sight.

Since being taken over by Tunku Ismail Idris in 2013, everything has gone upwards for JDT. Along with the swathes of talented players, local, foreign, and naturalized alike coming into their doors, the club also saw overhauls of their youth academy and other relevant facilities, which included a state-of-the-art, world-class stadium in the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium that opened in 2020.

With their 10 Liga Super titles, four Malaysia Cups, three Malaysia FA Cups, eight Piala Sumbangsih titles, and one AFC Cup title to their name, JDT’s evolution quickly saw them becoming the golden standard of Malaysian football, with the Southern Tigers carrying Malaysia’s coefficient in AFC club competitions as well as hugely contributing to the current lineup of the Malaysia national team. It was only natural that the Malaysian Football League (MFL)’s Club Licensing First Instance Body (FIB) took no hesitation in awarding JDT their Liga Super license for the 2024/25 season.

JDT’ financial muscle meant that they were able to attract the best foreign talents from abroad as well as poaching the best players from their Liga Super rivals, something that prevented them from denting JDT’s dominance over the Liga Super.

Numerous sides have came close to challenging JDT’s hegemony but all of them eventually faltered. Back when the JDT project started, there were Pahang FA and FELDA United who served as the Southern Tigers’ closest rivals. As the two sides began to decline – with FELDA even going bust following the COVID-19 pandemic – it was Perak FC, Kedah Darul Aman, and Terengganu FC who stepped up to the plate, with a resurgent Sabah FC and former perennial powerhouses Selangor FC joining them once Perak faltered around the same time FELDA shut their doors.

None of these sides came close to actually giving JDT a tough time, though. Selangor, the latest team to became JDT’s closest challengers, finished the 2023 Liga Super season a whopping 15 points behind the champions.

While JDT have used their near-infinite resources to establish a dominating dynasty within Malaysian football, at the other end of the table, we saw several sides going belly up due to financial issues and those who went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows for the same reason as well.

This season’s wooden spoon “winners” were Kelantan FC, a once-revered side who had actually dominated the Malaysian football scene in the early 2010s – around the same time Tunku Ismail took over JDT. The Red Warriors had only won two times throughout the 2023 campaign, scoring 29 and conceding a league-high 121 goals throughout the season – which included a 2-11 trashing at the hands of Selangor where Kelantan had actually gone 2-0 up first.

Financial issues were the root of Kelantan’s woes since 2016 and while the arrival of fast food and hotel entrepreneur Norizam Tukiman in 2020 was seen as a godsend for the club, in reality, it was all just a false dawn.

Despite showing some signs of ambitions – which included the purchase of Indonesian second-tier side PSPS Riau as Kelantan’s “sister” club – an incident in 2022 that saw angry PSPS fans protesting at Norizam by setting fire to the seats of the Riau Main Stadium prompted the businessman to withdrew his support of the Askyar Bertuah, effectively condemning PSPS to a period of limbo that saw players and staffs being unpaid for up to months.

And while many saw this as Norizam redirecting his focus at Kelantan – who were then fighting for promotion to the Liga Super – after the Red Warriors had gone up, Norizam did the same thing to Kelantan as well, with wages to both players and staff members going unpaid as well as Norizam implementing a bizarre scheme that saw players only getting paid if they win a game.

Star players such as Nurshamil Abd Ghani, Natanael Siringoringo, Nuha Marong, Ismahil Akinade, Mario Arques and Christian Rontini promptly jumped ship as Kelantan shipped heavy defeat after heavy defeat. There was also the controversy when Kelantan signed a batch of new foreigners – which included Youssef Ezzejjari and Alie Sesay – only for them to jump ship as well, with Youssef being unveiled by Negeri Sembilan FC only days after being unveiled as a Kelantan player.

This eventually culminated to Norizam, once seen as a savior of Kelantan, to be effectively demonized by the club’s fanbase, who nicknamed him as “Zambual,” the liar. And while Gede Widiade and his PSF Group managed to save PSPS from certain financial ruin, the same cannot be said for Kelantan – still underneath the ownership of Norizam, the Red Warriors were denied a Liga Super license by the MFL’s Club Licensing FIB and were fined Rm20,000 for non-compliance with the FIB’s timeline. They were the only Liga Super side from 2023 to have failed their licensing for 2024/25.

Should Kelantan fail to pay their fine, submit their proof of overdue salary settlement or reach an agreement with their remaining players and staffs, as well as submitting a letter of declaration in regards of the settlements of their overdue payments and sort out their cases with both FIFA and the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) before December 31st, the Red Warriors will be expelled from next season’s Liga Super.

And Kelantan weren’t the only Liga Super side who experienced a severe financial crisis in recent years.

Only three years from becoming JDT’s closest challengers, Perak experienced relegation to the second-tier for the first time in 2021 following a severe financial collapse triggered by a change in government administration. The Bos Gaurus underwent a full season of struggle, which saw the club change ownership multiple times until their fortunes were salvaged by current owners XOX Berhad. Under the telecommunications company, Perak are still finding their feet, but at least the ship has been steadied.

Other clubs were less fortunate, though.

Melaka United were dissolved in 2022 after their well-documented financial troubles became too much for them to handle, while Sarawak United were forcefully relegated to the third-tier, where they had struggled there too. The aforementioned FELDA withdrew from the league after a difficult 2020 campaign and years of financial struggle, while both Sarawak FA and Perlis FA lie dormant following their own financial woes. The two sides were the only state-backed sides who are absent from the Malaysian football pyramid.

JDT’s dominance, as well as the huge contrast of resources between the Southern Tigers and the Liga Super’s other teams, poses the risk of diminishing the league’s competitive values. Sure, JDT has been helping Malaysian football a lot through their continental performances, but they couldn’t properly test themselves in domestic soil due to the inability of others in catching up with them.

Clubs in the Liga Super have resigned themselves as regular cannon fodder for JDT, aiding their quest in claiming domestic glory as well as making a name of themselves in the continental stage.

That said, JDT’s dominance and hegemony is completely justifiable. As said earlier, they were the golden standards of Malaysian football, with an excellent corporate structure, superb financial management, and a sustainable youth academy that ensured a fresh flow of talent from within the club’s hierarchy.

Other clubs in the Liga Super should take example from JDT and try to improve themselves to be as competitive as them. Proper management, a long-term planning, and sustainable financing could lead to teams reaping the same benefits and successes that JDT has in the past few years – and if they could get an owner with the same levels of ambition and commitment as Tunku Ismail, it’ll benefit said clubs even more.

The likes of Selangor, Terengganu, and Kedah have shown that they are moving on the same direction as JDT is. And while both Kuala Lumpur City FC and Sabah were given warnings by the MFL’s Club Licensing FIB for their recent financial arrears – with the latter’s social media team literally bailing out of their YouTube channel because of this – they have shown the same amount of promise on the pitch as the Southern Tigers in recent years.

Yes, in the short-term JDT’s dominance and the financial collapse of several clubs may take the “Super” off Liga Super, but in the long-term, should everyone else follow on the same blueprint that JDT has, the Malaysian top-flight will be better than ever.