Johor Darul Ta'zim leading the way in Malaysia's first foray into the Asian Champions League
On Thursday afternoon in AFC House in southern Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian dream was realised as the name of a club from the country was pulled out of a ball and entered the group stage of the AFC Champions League. Next February, Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) will be one of the continental big boys -- or at least rub shoulders with them.
The only problem was that as the draw was held about three weeks earlier than usual -- because the AFC has the 2019 Asian Cup starting in early January -- the East Asian season has yet to finish. This means that none of JDT's opponents are, as yet, known. With a posse of Malaysian journalists swelling the numbers at the small auditorium and with the anticipation palpable, it was all a bit deflating.
One thing is for sure: There will be a South Korean opponent. It might be not 2012 winner Ulsan Horangi but Gyeongnam FC, an unfashionable team from the south of the country who will be making a debut appearance. There will also be two entrants from the playoffs, possibly one from China (Shandong Luneng or Beijing Guoan) and one from Japan, possibly even current holders Kashima Antlers. Whatever happens, Group E should end up being one of the easier groups.
It has been a long road for the Southern Tigers, and it started back in 2012, when the Crown Prince of the state that borders Singapore, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim (TMJ), took control of the club. Since then, they have come to dominate Malaysian football, winning the past five league titles. It is due not just to the money that has been invested but also the vision that TMJ had of building something different.
The sums have indeed been significant, but this vision -- executed more smoothly than a Safiq Rahim through-ball -- has been more so. JDT are as dominant in terms of professionalism, marketing, facilities, operations and ambition as they are on the pitch. The club has signed plenty of talent in all fields.
JDT have been trying to get into the group stage of the Champions League for some time, always failing at the playoff stage. In 2015, they lost 3-0 to Bangkok Glass, but there was plenty of consolation, as the team won the AFC Cup, the first in Southeast Asia to do so. A year later, there was a much tighter game at the home of Thailand's Muangthong United, a goalless draw that went to penalties that went to the home team. All watching inside the full stadium agreed that such colour and passion were needed in a tournament that was often taken for granted in other parts of Asia.
In 2017, JDT got past their now-traditional Thai test but then lost at Gamba Osaka. The next year brought more playoff heartbreak.
At the time, most Malaysian fans seemed to back their representative, but with JDT's continued dominance at home, the support has faded. Domination in football never goes down well. Indeed, after the 2018 loss to Muangthong, the glee expressed was so widespread that TMJ took to social media to blast the detractors for taking such pleasure at seeing a Malaysian team lose to a foreign side and mocking them for needing a foreign side to beat JDT as a local team could not.
It is to be hoped now, though, that there is more pride in the fact that the Southern Tigers are going to play six games against teams from East Asia. All fans should get behind the Malaysian champions -- it is a new step for the country.
"They will learn so much more from good players around them, and not only will it benefit the club but also the national team," TMJ said ahead of the draw.
"It is good for Malaysian football that JDT is playing in the tournament."
At the very least, it might distract Johor from domestic concerns to give others a chance to win the Malaysian Super League, but, more than that, it should inspire others to try to follow in their footsteps. The short-termism that exists at most Malaysian clubs and the political goings-on behind the scenes hold them back. JDT show that it is possible to move to the next level.
The club understands that it is going to take time to adjust to and succeed in the AFC Champions League. TMJ talks of using 2019 and 2020 to get ready to really challenge in 2021.
Given his past record, few would doubt that JDT will do just that, but it is up to the other Malaysian teams and fans to get behind the champions while trying to make qualifying for the 2020 version as hard as possible. Then everybody wins.