Life is funny sometimes. Who would have thought that a Lawn Bowls tournament called The Borneo Lawn Bowls Cup would somehow play a role in launching a trend that would see mixed Malaysian football players applying for local passports and plying their trade within the country.
Now let’s roll the clock back to 2013. Upon request from his mother Lisa, I agreed to have Junior Eldstal fly to Kota Kinabalu and gain work experience at a sports tourism event under my tutelage. It was a requirement for Junior’s college course in the UK.
So one fine afternoon during the Bowls event, I innocently asked Junior if he played football as there was a futsal game that night. Junior informed me that he played semi pro in England and that he held a Malaysian passport. I invited him over for futsal and the rest was history as within a few months, he was loving life as a professional football with Sarawak FA.
The following year, Brendan Gan, having previously played for Sabah as a foreigner, re-entered Malaysian football with a local passport to sign for Kelantan. More recently, Matthew Davies, through his agent Tony Rallis, made the decision to leave Perth Glory, where he had played 15 games for the first team, and completely change the direction of his career by signing as a local player for Pahang FA.
I think it’s important for the Malaysian football fans to be aware of the specific stages that are involved in making it possible for these mixed heritage players to play in Malaysia because trust me, it’s not a simple process. Here is how it goes:
1. Initial contact is made and player confirms his interest in applying for Malaysian passport
2. The players’ documents and family tree is thoroughly inspected and studied to ensure the player does qualify for the Malaysian passport.
3. Contact is established with clubs that are interested, before a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is signed, pending successful passport application.
4. Next step is to engage the Home Ministry, where specific rules and regulations need to be matched for the passport to be approved. Once it’s approved here, the player is then eligible to compete as a local player.
Trust me when I say that it wasn’t easy for Junior Eldstal, Brendan Gan and Matt Davies to give up what they had in the UK/Australia and relaunch their career in a different environment. For example, Brendan has a great job which gave him stability and he was also making extra income by playing in the semi-pro NSW NPL. To give all this up; it was certainly a big decision. Ultimately, these players were all excited by the opportunity of playing in an emerging professional league in front of packed stadiums, earn a decent living, and hopefully be considered good enough to play for the Malaysian national team. What they all bring to Malaysian football is a mentality and professional attitude that many of the local players can learn from. Hopefully, all three will have long and distinguished careers in Malaysia, and also do well in the national team set-up.
Interestingly, five other mixed Malaysian players have contacted me and showed interest in following in the footsteps of Junior, Brendan and Matt. But it’s not just a matter of signing any Tom, Dick or Harry, who has mixed heritage and plays football. It needs to be ascertained, that these players would actually contribute something positive to Malaysian football. Do they help improve the standards of the local league? Are they good professionals, both on and off the pitch? Do they have a realistic chance of playing with distinction for the national team? If the answer is yes, then from my perspective, they can only be a positive addition to Malaysian football.
Some individuals within the football fraternity have been pushing for non-heritage players or foreigners who have played in Malaysia for a number of years to be naturalized, so they can go on to represent Malaysia. Call me old-fashioned but I strongly disagree. Is Malaysian football so bad that you need to call up players without any association to this country, to play for the national team?
Obviously, there is a massive difference between mixed heritage players like Junior, Brendan and Matt and a normal foreigner like Dickson Nwakaeme or Paulo Rangel.
Singapore nationalized non-heritage player some time ago, and yes they enjoyed a period where the national team’s results improved significantly. But at what price? They were accused and labeled as cheaters by certain critics, including myself. I mean, seriously? How satisfying is it to win the AFF Suzuki Cup with five non-Singaporeans in your starting 11? They seem to have altered their philosophy recently and I noticed that the results have been poor of late. But I can argue that most of the current national team players were starved off international development prior to that.
That leads me to my next talking point; 19 year-old Dion Cools. Half-Belgian, Half-Malaysian, Cools is currently playing regularly in the Belgian 2nd division and is a member of the Belgium U-19 national team. There has been talks of getting Cools back to Malaysia, but in my opinion, the boy needs to stay in Belgium and build his career. I recently wrote about the need for Malaysian players to make it overseas by playing in strong leads; precisely what Cools needs to focus on at this point. He needs to push and try playing at the highest level possible, and maybe in years to come, Malaysia could be a potential option.
So to summarise, we have three different scenarios and each players’ situation needs to be independently considered as follows:
1. A good professional or semi-professional with Malaysian heritage, talented and will be able to raise the level of football in Malaysia. (YES)
2. A foreigner with no Malaysian heritage, who wants to be nationalised and play for Malaysia (NO)
3. A youngster like Dion Cools in Belgium should give himself every opportunity of going as far as possible in Europe, before considering a move back to Malaysia. (YES)
No doubts, these are interesting shifts within the spectrum of Malaysian football as these heritage-based footballers continue to evolve and make their mark on the local scene.