A good place to segue into Malaysian football: the national team’s FIFA world ranking hovers around 155 out of 200, but it still rouses very passionate discussion. There has been a lot of nostalgia. What does Khairy Jamaluddin (Minister for Youth and Sports) think of the case for Malaysian football as a microcosm of Malaysian society?
“I think there are better days ahead. I think with the NFDP (National Football Development Programme) that we are running for kids between seven and 17, you’ll definitely see players of different styles of play and intensity coming through, and hopefully, they’ll mature into adult players who raise the bar.”
He continues: “There’s new leadership in FAM (Football Association of Malaysia) which I think is trying to do the right things, and that takes time. One good thing is that we start at a low base... It’s nice to look back and reflect, but I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. I liked the movie (Ola Bola). However, I didn’t like us obsessing over it because we were good, but we weren’t great. We never qualified for the World Cup; we qualified for the Olympics twice, so we are getting there. But we aren’t there yet.”
Esquire clarifies the point: if you put a mirror to Malaysian society and that mirror was the Malaysian football team, then at the time when we were competitive with many other countries, that team was drawn from a diverse background.
“That’s completely separate from how good we were relative to other countries’ teams. Do you want a team that is the best team out there, or do you want to have this diverse team also?” he counters. “It’s now a meritocracy. The guy who runs the NFDP that oversees 20,000 kids from seven to 17 who will choose the future Malaysian team for the Under-17 World Cup qualifiers is Chinese and his team is almost 100-percent Malay. This is not by design; this is by what is going on.”
The question arises about the size and the type of the talent pool because of the growing popularity of private schools and their ethnic and economic divide with national schools. Student enrolment in national schools is reportedly around 90 percent Malay, with the opposite figure prevailing in private schools.
“The best part of our national football programme [is that] it is a case study,” says Khairy. “I anticipated this three years ago when I started, in that it is not limited to national schools, there are open try-outs. We actively go to the private schools and the academies that rich parents send their kids [for try-outs] too...
“You see a better [social and ethnic] balance in badminton, which has a lot of Chinese and Malay participation, more so Chinese. I don’t know how it happened; it wasn’t by design [or policy]. For me, as much as sports is a tool for social development and nation-building, it cannot be for social engineering. I can’t use sports to try and create an Ola Bola Malaysian team. My main task is to create a team that wins.”
And what of the expectations of Malaysia for the Games?
“Oh. We have to win it.”
Excerpt from We Got Game? Interview with Khairy Jamaluddin published in the Esquire August 2017 print edition. Read the full interview here