New FAM leaders, national coach to take Malaysia forward
Malaysia's limp exit from the group stages of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup completed a mixed year for the country, which is still in search of a fully professional footing in the game.
Internal politicking and outside interference have threatened to ravage both the national team and the nation's most decorated club, with the 2017 campaign asking more questions than providing answers.
On the positive side, fans were treated to a healthy title race between Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Felda United, deservedly sealed by the Southern Tigers.
Faiz Subri provided, arguably, the biggest cheer of the year, by eliminating Barcelona stars Lionel Messi and Neymar to make the top-three shortlist of the FIFA Puskas award, courtesy of his physics-defying free kick against Pahang in February.
Here are five wishes for Malaysian football in 2017:
1. New FAM leadership to have clear direction
The FA of Malaysia (FAM) has been a scourge for the development of the local game for decades, but the national body was subjected to relentless brickbats in 2016. This was largely due to its noncommittal president Tengku Abdullah ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah, who did not attend a single football function this year, publicly washing his hands of his post.
Cowed by pressure, other high-ranking officials brought forward the elections to March from 2018. It is now up to the affiliates to choose a new regime that will be as unbiased as possible and come up with a clear and forward-thinking blueprint to drag local football out of the doldrums. These new leaders must be willing to walk the talk and follow that up by taking responsibility for their actions. No one is expecting instant change, but a firm start is mandatory.
2. Fluid transition from youth to senior ranks
Grassroots development is almost always suggested when the topic of progression is brought up. But Malaysia do have a decent and functional system to produce young starlets.
The under-16 side were one match away from qualifying for the 2015 FIFA U17 World Cup in 2014 before being cruelly dumped out after a 2-1 loss to Australia. The multimillion dollar National Football Development Programme is also progressing, with the U13 team clinching the prestigious IBERCup in 2015.
But these rising stars are not placed in safe hands once they turn 18, and beyond. The now-defunct Harimau Muda setup helped the growth of some players, but its disbandment has left a gaping hole between youth and senior transition. The absence of the most pivotal part of a footballer's growth is one that must be addressed swiftly before Malaysia loses its greatest talent.
3. National team to have new coach
Datuk Ong Kim Swee's failure to lead Malaysia into the semifinals of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, for only the third time in their history, is the signal for a shake up in the national ranks.
Change will most likely take place after the FAM elections in March. Should there be a new coach, he should tick all the boxes. Discipline, vision, authority, boldness in decision-making and a proven track record are just some of the areas that need to be fulfilled by the successful candidate.
The onus is also on the national body to do its homework before identifying and selecting a new coach. It goes without saying that the chosen applicant should get the utmost cooperation from all clubs to ensure the best election.
4. Clubs to outline structured financial security
Kelantan and Selangor could pull out of the 2017 Malaysia Super League, due to financial woes. The absence of these two local giants would leave a huge void for the upcoming campaign, and they are cautionary tales for the rest to take heed.
With privatisation to fully kick in by 2018, every team must ensure they have a secure sponsor on board, with an appropriate vision and direction. That means hiring the right personnel, with a rock solid marketing outlay to convince investors of their returns.
Kelantan's downfall was allowing their owner to dictate terms on her own, just for the sake of financial backing. Selangor's tug-of-war with their state government to get funds also backfired heavily. These kinds of calamities must be avoided at all costs.
5. Put more emphasis on young talent
It's all well and good for teams to buy talented players with proven pedigree, but the youngsters coming through the ranks should not be neglected.
Treble winners JDT and Kedah were among the two teams who put faith in some of their rising stars, and their gamble paid off handsomely. JDT's Fazly Mazlan has developed into one of the finest full-backs in the country, while Dominic Tan and Hasbullah Abu Bakar also did well after being promoted from JDT II in June.
Tan Cheng Hoe's faith in Ifwat Akmal bore fruit after the young custodian emerged one their star performers en route to the 2016 Malaysia Cup title. Ariff Farhan, Amirul Hisyam, Farhan Roslan and Syafiq Ahmad also received sufficient game time to flourish more in the 2017 season.
Other teams should also follow suit and pay more attention to youth in their ranks. If the constant reliance of ready-made players remains, the local talent pool will dry up in no time.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.