Junior Eldstal and Matt Davies inspire Malaysia's mixed heritage recruits
Singing the national anthem of his adopted country took a while to get used to for Perth-born Matthew Davies. But almost a year since becoming a Malaysian citizen, the Pahang defender can now confidently belt out the words of the Negaraku before club and international matches.
Negaraku literally means 'my nation' and former Australia U19 representative Davies is one of a growing number of mixed heritage players with a Malaysian parent to switch allegiance. It follows the example of other ASEAN countries like Philippines and Indonesia.
The 2016 edition of Malaysia Super League and Premier League, kicking off this weekend, is likely to feature more than a dozen foreign-born players, with freshly-minted Malaysian passports who now qualify as locals.
Five of the new arrivals -- Samuel Somerville (England), Curran Ferns (Australia), Stuart Wark (Scotland), Shazalee Ramlee (Australia) and Nick Swirad (England) -- have joined Johor Darul Ta'zim II, with another, Darren Lok (England), expected later this year.
No doubt they will be inspired by the success of ex-Perth Glory right-back Davies, former Sydney FC midfielder Brendan Gan -- now with Kelantan FA -- and ex-English Football Conference utility player Junior Eldstal, who's been a regular starter with 2015 AFC Cup champions JDT. The trio went from relative obscurity to national recognition and the international stage.
"Singing the Australian and now the Malaysian national anthem as a football player, I think I felt equally proud both times," Davies told ESPN FC.
"My mum Margaret had taught me the Malaysian national anthem when I was younger but it took me until round six of the 2015 season with Pahang to be confident enough to sing it."
Less than two years earlier, Davies represented Australia at the COTIF tournament in Spain and earned three caps for the U19 side under former English Premier League midfielder Paul Okon. But it was his lack of opportunities at club level -- just 16 Perth Glory senior appearances in two years -- that prompted him to look overseas.
"Instead of a bit part role in the A-League, I've played in excess of 35 professional games since last April at club and international level," he said.
For the U23's, Davies represented Malaysia at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games before getting his senior debut against Saudi Arabia last September after Harimau Malaya had been thrashed 10-0 by United Arab Emirates in an AFC World Cup qualifier. Since then, he's earned five caps in contributing to a much-improved Malaysian defence.
The road to Malaysia of ex-Sydney FC whiz kid Gan, who was thrown into the deep end under John Kosmina as a 20-year-old, has been different. He initially came to Sabah as an import player in 2012 before returning with a Malaysian passport at Kelantan two years later and representing his adopted nation at the 2014 Asian Games. The father's side of his family comes from Seremban, south of Kuala Lumpur.
"To be part of a growing football nation, with fans from all walks of life coming together to support the biggest sport in the country, is an amazing feeling and a decision that I will never regret," Gan told ESPN FC.
"I believe I was the first to play in the MSL so to see the change of clubs' opinions in recruiting mixed Malaysians is great to see. The influx this season is quite high but if they can add quality and truly contribute to the league then I feel it can only benefit football here."
Having played 19 times for Malaysia at senior and U23 level and being part of defending MSL champions JDT, Eldstal is the most accomplished of the mixed heritage players. From English, Swedish and Malaysian origins, he was discovered by ex-Australia international Scott Ollerenshaw during a social futsal game in Sabah three years ago.
"His mother is from Sabah and Junior was back home, doing some work experience with me at an event I was running," Ollerenshaw said. "When I could see that he could play during our futsal game, I arranged a trial for him at Sarawak who also liked what they saw. His success there and at JDT helped open the way for all the new players over the last season or so."
Philippines' rapid improvement this decade -- three consecutive semifinal appearances in the AFF Suzuki Cup and a jump of more than 40 spots in the FIFA rankings -- was largely put down to their recruitment of more than 20 foreign-born players, like former Chelsea juniors, Phil and James Younghusband, and German-born ex-Bundesliga midfielder Stephan Schrock.
But Ollerenshaw was quick to temper expectations about the new crop of Malaysian imports for 2016.
"They are certainly not world beaters but they are fit, young, motivated and realise that they have a fantastic opportunity to play professional football in a fast improving league," he said. "And because they are locals, they don't take up an import spot in Malaysian teams."
If they are able to establish themselves at club level, the next step would be to follow in the footsteps of Davies and Eldstal who hope to make Malaysia's squad for their final 2018 AFC World Cup qualifier next month.
With dual passports not accepted by Malaysia, the only downside for Davies is when he arrives at Perth airport after taking the five hour flight to visit his family in Western Australia.
"It's a strange feeling entering your country of birth as a foreigner, wishing that you didn't have to queue up at immigration," he said. "But that's about the only downside."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.