These are undoubtedly exciting times to be a Johor Darul Ta'zim fan. The Malaysian club are odds on favourites to lift the Super League for the third season in a row, have already lifted the FA Cup, are through to the group stages of the AFC Cup they won last year. Hell, they even reinvigorated their Malaysia Cup campaign after beating PDRM last weekend 4-1 at the Larkin Stadium.
A 4-0 thumping of the same opponents at the same stadium inched the champions one step closer to the title but the club owner, the crown prince of the state of Johor, took to the club's website
, as he often does, to criticise the club's supporters after a crowd of less than 8,000 saw the game. In an wide ranging interview the crown prince said he was disappointed with the number of people who saw the PDRM game and even went at one stage to suggest he would not always be involved in the football club as he had other 'agendas'.
'I am very disappointed with the attendance at the stadium because when we first started building this club together back in 2013, I saw a lot of potentials and could generate alot of income for the club. However, when I see the attitude of fans I become very disheartened. When I announced the building of a new stadium with a capacity of 35,000 people everyone ask why only 35,000 and that it should be bigger. Last night’s attendance did’t (sic) even reach 7,000 fans.
This is not the first time it has happened. I have realised this since the beginning of the season and also last year. To those who can’t accept what I am doing, that is your problem, but if want your club to progress and excel, you need to do your part as fans. Don’t just wait for matches against big teams. Regarding online ticketing system, we are in the final stages in implementing the system to ease everyone’s problem. Once implemented, if the attendance is still low, I will just build a stadium with a capacity of 10,000!
For now, I am unsure how much longer I will be with football as I have other agenda but we will see how it goes. For now, the fire is still burning within me but let me see the situation as there are many more mission and vision that I wish to implement for the state that I love very much.'
As I have written before, Johor Darul Ta'zim have become bigger than Malaysia and much of that is down to the royal interest in the football club. Pablo Aimar may have attracted the headlines for click happy newspapers and fans with stars in their eyes but the real work at the football club has gone on behind the scenes and off the radar with facilities and infrastructure without par in Malaysia. They are, along with the likes of Muang Thong United and perhaps Buriram United one of the few football clubs that can be described as professional. Interestingly the birth of Buriram United was also made possible through the drive and deep pockets of one man.
Ostensibly JDT and Buriram United have their roots in other clubs (Johor FA and Johor FC, PEA and Buriram FC) but as far as the fans are concerned they are all but new entities; they came to the party attracted by the wealth and glamour of rich owners, keen to replicate the Chelsea/Manchester City model in their own backyard. They discovered football when the money poured in.
At a JDT game a couple of years back a fan told me proudly 'we are die hard supporters' as we discussed travelling up to KL for an away game together. He was indeed a die hard supporter, and a friendly one at that, but he had only been coming to football since the crown prince had gotten involved. He was a football fan but the existing local sides held no appeal for him and thousands like him. He had seen what football could be like on TV and he wanted to be part of something similar and who could blame him? I had been to Larkin Stadium before royalty added its stardust and it wasn't pretty (see picture left). And compare with this short video from 2014!
JDT fans have only known success. They have only been around a couple of seasons and they don't know what failure is. They don't know what it is like to escape relegation to the 3rd tier FAM League on the last day of the season away to Sungai Ara or play out season after season of mediocrity and mid table finishes. And even if that was the fare their team was dishing up, as we are seeing with Selangor this season, the fans just ain't interested. They vote with their feet. As Dez Corkhill writes in his seminal piece about Malaysian football culture 'is football in Malaysia truly the people’s game?'
He suggests not, citing the lack of a grass roots culture among other areas lacking in Malaysian football.
JDT are successful and rightly so because of all the hard work on and off the field but it is easy for fans to become blase. Who remembers the arrogance of Manchester United and Chelsea fans when they were winning all before them and who can say hand on heart they didn't enjoy feasting on schadenfreude last season? I'm not suggesting for a minute of course JDT fans have become arrogant; all fans develop a streak after winning a few games, it is part of the game's appeal after all and a chance to forget the humdrum existence most of us lead with our shitty jobs and 'cheap holidays in other people's misery.'
While JDT fans have become a little bit too comfortable with the idea of winning trophies as a right, hundreds of miles to the south east there is a football club that is kept alive only in the hearts of its supporters. Persebaya, founded in 1927, based in Indonesia's second city of Surabaya, have been missing from the patchwork football map of recent years as the ugly head of politics plays kick around with the supporters.
Persebaya fans have seen their name usurped by outside, their supporters name usurped by outsiders and the club all but fall off the map but they have continued to wear their badge with a pride and passion that must have football clubs around the world casting envious glances.
In recent months 35,000 Persebaya fans turned up for a legends game at 10 November Stadium (pictured left) that was called off at half time as they spilled on to the pitch to mob their heroes. 3,000 travelled to Jakarta to picket a PSSI congress and to sleep in an empty stadium, to keep the name out there and in the public domain. And today? Today a game featuring a Persebaya Under 16 side against a local school was postponed before it could start as thousands of fans descended on the field to see someone, anyone wear their beloved badge, Some estimates suggest 10,000. For an Under 16 team!
Persebaya fans, the Bonek
, aren't starved of success. They have been starved of football for about as long as JDT have been in existence. They have their legends. Players like Andik Vermansyah, Mat Halil, Anang Ma'aruf, Mursyid Effendi, Yusuf Ekodono. They have their heroic tales like the time thousands travelled by train to Bandung, in the carriages, on the roofs. Persebaya fans have everything JDT fans don't have. But then JDT fans have everything the Persebaya fans don't have. If only someone, somewhere could combine the two...