An Australian in the Malaysia Cup game of thrones

by Fikri Jermadi

Though often described as the Manchester United of Malaysia, there are some interesting parallels between Malaysia Cup winners Selangor FA and Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Their cup exploits play a major role in defining their identities.

 

In Real Madrid’s case, though they are not starved of domestic success, they are driven by continental achievements. While they won the European Cup six times in the 1950s and 60s, until 1998 Real went over three decades without winning again.

Further victories in 2000 and 2002 was followed by a relative famine of 12 years, ended only by La Decima in 2014.

The same could be said for Selangor and the Malaysia Cup, Asia’s oldest national cup competition. The Red Giants contested the inaugural final against Singapore nearly a century ago in 1921.

Back then, it was known as the Malaya Cup. Losing that match did not deter them, as they would pick up the trophy the following year for the first of 32 times.

However, since their victory in 2005 sealed a domestic treble, it has been slim pickings for a decade. League titles in 2009 and 2010 did not sate this hunger. Though their seven championships is the biggest total of all, league football only began in the country in the early 1980s.

Many fans traditionally place more stock in the Malaysia Cup. Much like Los Merengues, no club was more desperate to win the trophy than the one that won it the most.

As such, the relief when they qualified for the 2015 final was palpable. Selangor supporters dubbed this campaign Misi 33, a mission to bring back the Malaysia Cup for a record 33rd time.

Having lost to Kedah at the final hurdle in 2008, this final was also seen as a revenge mission against the same opponents. Yet despite the progress made, many worked to destabilise the team by undermining head coach Mehmet Durakovic.

Appointed at the end of 2013, Durakovic came in as a last minute replacement after another manager reneged on his deal. The Australian worked wonders for nearly two years on relative shoestrings, twice finishing as runner up behind nouveau rich Johor Darul Ta’zim.

Considering the club consistently sold his star players and purchased new ones with little consultation, these are fine achievements not to sniff at. Having also captained Selangor to a hat trick of Malaysia Cup titles in the 1990s, it’s not unreasonable to demand some level of respect and goodwill from his club.

Unfortunately, behind the scenes a game of thrones was in play, as the club’s hierarchy sought to unseat him. Some suggest him to be the victim of a political power play at the highest levels of the club.

Others believe his candour and unwillingness to play such politics counted against him. Rumours ran amok that a pre-contract was signed with Datuk Zainal Abidin Hassan, a legendary figure on the local scene and Durakovic’s former Selangor teammate.

That irony was not lost on many as the club hierarchy continued to deny what is described as “the worst kept secret in Malaysian football.” Durakovic popularity within the dressing room didn’t appear to count for much, either.

“All I know is that he has done wonders for this club,” said his star defender Robert Cornthwaite, “and the ongoing rumours don’t help the stability of the team.”

All this meant the team was fired up for the final, keen to fight for their under-fire coach. The striker Ahmad Hazwan Bakri was keener than most, catching the Kedah defence off guard to score in the third minute.

“It was very important to get that early goal,” Durakovic mused after the match. “We wanted to attack over 90 minutes.”

 

The attack didn’t let up in the second half, with Hazwan grabbing his second of the match to record the Red Giants’ 33rd success.

After the final whistle, the team once again showed their support for the manager. “We feel at home with his methods,” said team captain Shahrom Kalam, “and from the time he got here, he has been trying to make us feel like one big family. The reason we were fighting so hard is because of him too.”

Such words must have sounded like music to Durakovic’s ears.

In hindsight, the sweetest melody of all might have been played in the semi-final. There they faced Pahang, the holders who won the Malaysia Cup two years on the trot.

Led by fearsome Nigerian goal machine Dickson Nwakaeme, they were bidding to become the first team to win three titles consecutively since Durakovic’s own Selangor in the 1990s.

Relying on that team spirit, they battled to a scoreless draw in Pahang in the first leg, with both Shahrom and Cornthwaite combining to keep Nwakaeme quiet.

The second leg, played in front of 50,000 fans, was a fiery affair. Not unlike the final, the partisan crowd exploded when Selangor scored another early goal.

Selangor’s Brazilian striker Guilherme de Paula rocketed a shot into the bottom corner from 25 yards after only ten minutes. In the second half, one time prodigy Nazmi Faiz curled one in from outside the penalty box, leaving Pahang’s goalkeeper with no chance.

With those two unanswered goals, Durakovic allowed himself a wry smile as full-time approached. His opposite number, clearly frustrated by his team’s blunt attack, prowled the touchline with a scowl on his face.

A gracious winner, he walked over after the referee blew the final whistle and gave Pahang’s coach a brief hug. His name? None other than his old friend and current foe Datuk Zainal Abidin Hassan, the man Selangor eventually confirmed as his replacement.

Whatever happens in the future, the Australian can consider his mission accomplished. As Selangor celebrated the Malaysia Cup victory with a public state holiday on the Monday following the final, Durakovic himself could rest easy as the first foreigner to lift the Malaysia Cup as a player and manager.

He had also done all that he could, bringing success in a time of great instability.

In that regard, another parallel could be found with Real Madrid. Despite ending the 32-year wait, Jupp Heynckes was shown the door soon after 1998 final due to a poor season in the league.

Carlo Ancelotti was given the pink slip barely a year after the historic Decima, with Real president Florentino Perez even admitting he didn’t know why he fired the cool Italian.

Like them, Mehmet Durakovic’s time came to a premature end, but he earned a literal and moral victory few could place a price on.

If ever their paths were to cross, one could imagine them having more than a few stories to share.

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