TMJ vs. Annuar Musa for FAM boss revives Johor-Kelantan rivalry
Johor versus Kelantan is always a big fixture. There are high stakes, passion, a crisis if you lose, celebration if you win. But perhaps the biggest-ever battle between these two states will take place in Saturday's Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) election.
On the line is control of the game in Malaysia, and its future direction. The heavyweights of each state are running for president: TMJ of Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), and Tan Sri Annuar Musa, of Kelantan.
I have had the pleasure of working for both states: in different eras, and with different outcome. So perhaps an insider's view may be useful.
Between 1998 and 2000, I coached Johor FC (now JDT II). It was very different set-up to today's lavish operation. We used to get the bus to Kelantan, sleep in a tiny hotel, and travel back overnight to save money. Facing Kelantan in Kota Bharu with the likes of Hashim Mustapha, Zahasmi Ismail, not to mention their colourful goalkeeper who was known as Halim Gila. It was always a daunting task, with the vocal passionate fans right behind them.
Our training pitch in Johor was the polo fields of the Royal Family. There were no dressing rooms, toilets or showers: it was change in the car, and use a rubber hose to wash off the mud. The staff consisted of myself, an assistant and part-time physio. The balls, bibs and nets were kept in the boot of my car.
I was lucky that I had a brilliant manager (a position that does not exist in any other countries) in Hj Ahmad Mohammad, and he managed to keep us afloat financially. Eventually, after a Malaysia FA Cup win and league title glory, we were brought down by political interference from the then-Johor FA, who are now JDT.
There was no TMJ in charge back then: he was a 13-year-old boy at school. The nearest I came to royalty was when one of the Princesses rode over the training field, and she was wearing a Michael Owen football shirt from the 1997 World Youth Cup.
Today, we see world-class facilities, multiple highly qualified staff and well-paid players. They're a thoroughly professional outfit, which has revolutionised the Malaysian scene, and even achieved regional success by winning the 2015 AFC Cup.
TMJ's autocratic style has shown that change can occur in Malaysian football: it just needs strong leadership and significant financial investment.
My time at Kelantan was a lot shorter. And, although Tan Sri Annuar Musa, in theory, sacked me, we actually got on well, even after my termination in 2014. Like in many cases in Malaysia, it was the unseen hands that were the problem for me, and for the six or seven coaches who have followed.
But, unless we trained at the Kota Bharu stadium, the practice facilities were like Johor in 1998: no showers, and we had to change in car. But the fans were fanatical, and the Ultras were always supportive. The biggest influence was the modern-day nightmare of so-called fake news on social media. Johor seem to handle that better, and have a controlled presence on the internet, with an attractive and interesting product.
The similarities between the two challengers? Both are domineering, and both make decisions. There is no doubt that whoever wins, some major change will occur. I also think that is what the Malaysian public want because the fans are crying out for a new direction.
The key may be the quality of advisors to the leader. If TMJ wins, many people imagine a clean sweep of staff, positions and structure of FAM. If Tan Sri Annuar Musa wins, there will certainly be a more political approach, as he knows how to survive as an administrator because he understands that whoever actually votes, counts. Public opinion can be manipulated.
So it will be interesting to see how the voters are courted in the run-up to Saturday. Will a behind-the scenes' deals be struck? Will voters be scared if they back the wrong candidate?
Only a fool says politics and sport do not mix. High-level administration is a political animal, and the stakes haven't been higher. There will be a Shakespearean sea change whoever wins, and perhaps it will even be like a tsunami.
Hanoi-based ex-Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby has won league titles in Singapore and Malaysia. Twitter: @DarbySteveCoach