JDT ecstatic as Malaysia awarded ACL spot for 2019 despite low ranking
Malaysian football has been given a huge boost as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has confirmed that the Malaysia Super League (MSL) champions will go straight into the AFC Champions League (ACL) group stage in 2019.
The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) revealed the surprising news, despite the failure of the national side to win a game in 2017 under coach Nelo Vingada and their drop to an all-time low of 174 in the FIFA rankings.
But they have edged ahead of Hong Kong, despite being 31 places belong the former British colony in the rankings, to secure an automatic group stage berth.
In 2019, the champions of Malaysia, rather than the champions of Hong Kong, will qualify directly, without the need for preliminary rounds.
This will end the extremely challenging route currently faced by the MSL winners as they have to face two one-off ties away from home against tough opposition in order to qualify.
Four-time champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) lost to Bangkok Glass and Muang Thong United in Thailand in 2015 and 2016 respectively before defeating Bangkok United on penalties this year.
However, for this victory, they were rewarded with a playoff tie against Cerezo Osaka in Japan and duly lost 3-0.
In order to reach the group stage in 2018, they will have to first defeat Muang Thong United away before travelling to face a Japanese team in another winner-takes-all clash.
JDT are expected to continue their recent dominance of the local game in 2018, which may well see them become the first Malaysian team to go directly into the group stage of the tournament in its current format.
With their AFC Cup win in 2015, JDT have been instrumental in maintaining Malaysian football's international profile.
"The lure of the AFC Champions League, as well as the prize that comes with etching a name in the history books as Malaysia's first participant in the group stage, teams in the 2018 Super League season will no doubt be vying all out for that coveted spot," a statement on the FAM website said.
"Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) have won the last four Super League titles and looks on course to repeat the feat in 2018, unless the likes of Pahang, Kedah and Perak could muster a more sustained challenge in the upcoming season."
JDT highlighted their important role in ensuring this golden opportunity for a Malaysian team.
"Malaysia will get a 1+1 slot for the ACL and AFC Cup for the 2019 and 2020 seasons," a statement on the JDT Facebook page said.
"Based on the point calculation of 70% club and 30% country, the improvement is due to JDT's good performances in the AFC competitions that have had a big impact on points gained in the ranking."
It was ironic that such good news was announced on the same day that the FAM admitted that Pahang FA had defied them by failing to respond to an invitation to participate in the 2018 AFC Cup.
The risk remains that Pahang's refusal will impact on Malaysia's ranking in the future. For now, however, the country can celebrate that fact that a Malaysian club is finally guaranteed to be participating alongside the biggest teams in Asian football in its most prestigious tournament.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK