End of 42-year wait spoiled by a 24-year old embarrassment

16 Jun 2022 01:10pm
The Harimau Malaya teaam celebrating their qualifications into Asia Cup at Bukit Jalil National Stadium on June 14. (Source: BERNAMA)
The Harimau Malaya teaam celebrating their qualifications into Asia Cup at Bukit Jalil National Stadium on June 14. (Source: BERNAMA)

Once the euphoria of Malaysia's first merited qualification for the Asian Cup finals in 42 years has settled, we might want to realise that the almost half a century long struggles of football in this nation isn't necessarily reflected solely by its results on the pitch, but the pitch itself.

For all that has been plundered in the name of football, we have not only struggled to produce a semblance of the formidable teams of the past, but have, at least as far as the Bukit Jalil National Stadium is concerned, showcased our constant failure to lay a proper football pitch.

In fact, the only thing that has been consistent in Malaysian football in the past 24 years since the National Stadium became the national team's home ground has been the state of its pitch - pathetic.

A state of careless pilferage and mismanagement often magnified during every instance of bad weather.

Such was the case last Saturday, when a band of groundsmen armed with dustpans and home gardening tools battled weather and global embarrassment to save Malaysia's AFC Asian Cup qualifying match against Bahrain from cancellation due to a water-logged pitch, long after a pre-match thunderstorm was reduced to a drizzle.

But that didn't stop the soaking wet and muddied state of the pitch from becoming the subject of ridicule, with some even attributing world number 154 ranked Malaysia's 2-1 defeat to the 89th ranked Bahrain to a failure to capitalise on "favourable" conditions.

One wonders if the huge gap in ranking would have been more apparent, had it not been for the weather.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) statement on the pitch technically deemed playable as it fulfilled requirements, was the only acceptable line in the aftermath of the match.

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Deeming it unplayable would bring into question seemingly primitive, weather-worn pitches in countries such as Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Burkina Faso and Mali where 2023 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifying matches were being played concurrently.

The AFC have, as such, dumped Malaysia's football infrastructure into its righful place, among deserved company.

The continental confederation seemed to be the only authority responding to questions on the National Stadium pitch in the time of need, with Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu preferring to entertain the nation with humor, attributing Malaysia's defeat to Bahrain to the players' loss of focus due to the loud cheering of the 63,000 spectators present.

Ahmad Faizal's remark was quite possibly aimed at deflecting attention from the sorry state of the pitch, which put it's managers the National Stadium Board (PSM), an agency directly under his portfolio, in the spotlight. Also providing some explanation as to how that exact pitch has become the subject of so much ridicule and controversy throughout its 24-year existence.

It is not for lack of effort and no shortage of funds that the the pitch has been found in such a state over and over again.

Taking centre stage on the VIP stand where Ahmad Faizal was seated that night was Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who will himself remember how as Youth and Sports Minister himself in 2008, he had launched a detailed study into discovering the most suitable type of grass for the National Stadium, which produced a new-age purportedly weather-proof breed of grass called 'marino paspalum'.

That pitch did not even last to the end of Ismail Sabri's two-year tenure as minister in-charge before the headaches resumed.

That Ismail Sabri took the matter so seriously back then, was due to the state of the pitch already causing a string of continuous embarrassments on the international stage.

Most notably were the 2001 Sea Games final which saw chunks of grass being kicked up, as was the case in several Malaysia Cup finals that followed, and the sandy pitch (as a water-removal method) that Brazil played on in their final preparations for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

It is thus mesmerising that 24 years and counting, after numerous efforts and multi-million ringgit projects to resurface, redesignate its drainage and other "innovations", the National Stadium pitch, the people are still feted with a subject of ridicule.

The latest incarnation of the National Stadium pitch became even more questionable after it was revealed that the project cost RM10 million, causing the Tunku Mahkota of Johor Tunku Ismail Idris to raise the issue of how the Sultan Ibrahim Stadium's pitch, regarded as the best in the region, cost just RM1.8 million to construct, including proper drainage systems, and less than RM300,000 annually to maintain. Tunku Ismail even offered to sponsor the next resurfacing of the National Stadium pitch to save the government some money, a lot of money.

To add to the woes pressed upon the nation's coffers, the current incarnation of the pitch came after a lengthy closure to relay it after even being part of the RM1.3 billion KL Sports City mega refurbishment project ahead of the 2017 Sea Games, failed to deliver the simple expectations of a decent football pitch.

This highlights the failure of the Youth and Sports Ministry to fulfill its basic responsibilities, to provide for and maintain sporting infrastructure for the masses.

That RM10 million was spent on such a pitch over which its failing drainage system was exposed for all to see, must also raise the question of the expertise the government has been depending on. Because while it has surely been profitable for the parties involved in delivering such disasters, the time has come for the government to finally realise what processes involved have failed for far too long.

While a celebratory mood enveloped the nation upon Malaysia's 4-1 defeat of Bangladesh to book the country's ticket to the AFC Asian Cup next year for the first time since we co-hosted it in 2007 and as a qualifier for the first time since 1980, it did little to convince us that Malaysia football is on the right track finally.

We will never be on the right track if taxpayers' funds keep being wasted on pitches fit for planting paddy.

Arnaz M. Khairul is a freelance sportswriter, media consultant and the former South East Asian representative of the International Association of Cycling Journalists (AIJC).

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