The drive to increase the fortunes of Malaysian football has failed with the normalized players, critics say, with the national team appearing in the first World Cup and not having a soul-searching about the state of the country’s game.
Football is one of the most popular sports in a country of more than 30 million people but Malaysia is small internationally – 154th in the FIFA rankings, a place below the small Andorra.
Long-violent Malaysian fans had high hopes when the football authorities launched the naturalization program in 2018 before qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and granted citizenship to several foreign-born players.
But the scheme was put on hold in August after Malaysia’s bid for the World Cup was once again curtailed, with some objections from normal players.
Already normal players can still play for the country but no newcomers will come through the door in the near future.
Santokh Singh, who played for the national team in the 1970s and 1980s – a better time – said there should be a new focus on training local players.
The 69-year-old told AFP: “We have a lot of good local players who are able to perform better than the foreigners. They are not getting the chance to play.
“The normalization of players is nonsense.”
Malaysia is one of the few countries that wants to raise the level of their national squad by granting citizenship to foreign players.
From China and Japan to Mexico and even Spain, it has become a growing trend, especially popular among Brazilian footballers.
But it has sparked controversy, with some, such as wealthy Qataris, accused of stacking their parties with foreigners with little connection to the country they represent.
‘Invaders from Brazil’
In 2007, then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter warned of a flood of “invaders from Brazil” and tightened the governing body’s rules.
Those who have no ancestral connection with a country must live there for at least five years before qualifying to play for their national team.
In the case of Malaysia, the Gambian-born Mohamad Sumareh was the first player to be granted citizenship, making his national team debut in 2018.
He started playing for Malaysian clubs in 2013 and is currently a winger of Johor Darul Tajim (JDT), who has won the top-flight Super League eight times since 2014.
He was followed by former Yugoslav-born Leridon Krasniki and Brazil-born Guilherme de Paula.
More common players who have grown up abroad but have a Malaysian guardian and they decide to return to Malaysia, where they have better opportunities to play international football.
The naturalization project came under fire after Malaysia lost to Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates in a World Cup qualifier in June last year, shattering their hopes of reaching Qatar.
Two months later, the Malaysian Football Association (FAM) said the project had been put on hold.
FAM general secretary Mohammad Saifuddin Abu Bakr told AFP the agency planned to “conduct further research into various aspects of the program.”
Some believe that the focus should be on solving the deep-rooted problem rather than overemphasizing the failures of Malaysia’s naturalization project.
“I think there are more important structural problems to bring long-term success,” Steve Derby, a coach and football consultant who has worked in Asia, including Malaysia, told AFP.
“Improve training facilities and stadium pitch.”
While they weren’t serious rivals for the region’s best side like Japan and South Korea, the Malaysian national team has seen better days.
The country qualified for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, but withdrew when Malaysia boycotted the US-led Games in protest of the invasion of Afghanistan.
The national team won the berth at the Asian Cup, which saw the region’s top national teams compete against each other every four years in 1976 and 1980.
Not everyone criticizes the naturalization project, believing that it could have better results if it is part of a broader strategy.
From 2007-2009, Malaysia’s national coach B. Sathyananthan said it is understandable that coaches sometimes look at policy.
“If you’re given a two-year contract, do you think you can wait for local players to hit form?” He said.
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