The Panthers are Back!

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Stadium Bandaraya, Penang FA's lucky stadium.

Penang football rises like a phoenix from the ashes.

When Ola Bola was released earlier this year, the buzz it created was sensational. Interest in local football surged, thanks to the movie, which portrays a fictionalised account of the Malaysian national football team during its heyday in the late 1970s. While tinged with nostalgia, it depicts a sense of camaraderie that knows no racial bounds. And it has also raked in a whopping RM15mil within a month of showing – a new record in local cinemas.

And then there was the super goal scored by the Penang team’s Faiz Subri in a free kick against Pahang at a Super League match in February. Faiz is set to be nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award, an award for the most beautiful goal of the year; his feat has been compared to Brazilian Roberto Carlos’s physics-defying free-kick against France in 1997.

At the launch of Penang FA's home and away jerseys for 2016.

And the icing on the cake for many Penangites is the Football Association of Penang’s (Penang FA) return to the top flight – the Super League – after a fiveyear hiatus. Penang FA was relegated in 2010 to the Premier League, where it, after collecting only four points in 22 matches, fell further, down for a while to the third division Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) League in 2011.2010 to the Premier League, where it, after collecting only four points in 22 matches, fell further, down for a while to the third division Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) League in 2011.

The team’s last match in the Premier League last season was an unbearable thriller. Trailing T-team in third place, Penang FA, fondly nicknamed the Penang Panthers, needed to win with a margin of at least five goals in order to get the promotion it sorely wanted. When the final whistle blew, Penang’s 2-0 victory against Malacca was just what it took; T-Team, by what many Penangites took as divine intervention, lost to Kuantan, paving the way for Penang FA’s triumphant return to the Super League.

Behind the Comeback Kid

“I’ve never been a football fan. I am a racquet man,” admits Datuk Seri Nazir Ariff. He has been president of Penang FA since 2013. He is also the chairman of Aspen Group – a Penang-based property developer – and board member of Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBA).

How Nazir came to be president of Penang FA is quite a story. He was having lunch one day at Jawi House when Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng called and said that he was coming to talk to Nazir about an important matter. Provided with privacy by the restaurant owner, the Chief Minister said that he wanted Nazir to take over FAP. “I had no idea what FAP was, and I had no idea how to tell Guan Eng that I didn’t know. I had a brilliant idea: I asked him, ‘why do you want me?’ He told me that Penang football needed great improvement. That’s when I figured out what FAP was!” Nazir recalls. He protested as he knew nothing about football and, according to him, Lim’s reply was, “Did I ask you to play football? I said I want you to manage the Football Association.”

“I asked for two weeks to consider the matter; he gave me two hours,” says Nazir.

Nazir is a hands-on person; he picked up this habit from his experience being the first non-expatriate CEO of Eastern Smelting Company in 1988, 14 years after he first joined the company. Every morning, he would walk around the plant talking to the labourers, floor sweepers, engineers and so on. The goal was to keep morale high – a trait he still holds dear: “I make it a point to go down to the training ground often just to provide inspiration for the players and the coach. I make it a point to know every player at an intimate and individual level,” Nazir says. He is involved in the maintenance of facilities, players’ needs and so on without interfering with the coach’s handling of team tactics.

Financial management is of crucial importance to any football association. Hosting one match at the Stadium Bandaraya alone costs around RM20,000. It was hard in the beginning – letters were sent out to 28 Penang-based corporations to request for funding, but no positive responses were received. Nazir relied on his corporate network with Aspen Group and PBA, besides state financial support, to revive the club. With better resources, Penang FA managed to acquire and improve its facilities, including a new team bus and a physio room. Nazir hopes that one day Penang FA can achieve Johor FC’s financial acumen and facility standards. “When I visited it, it had not one, but two training grounds! And its dressing room is like Shangri-la’s spa room! I hope one day Penang FA can have something like that.”

Ups and Downs

Compared to other states, Penang FA has had a long and colourful history. Founded in 1920, it is the second oldest football team in Malaysia and was one of the most feared teams in the 1950s: it won three Malaysia Cups and four FAM Cups between 1952 and 1958. Besides that, Penang has produced many notable players for the national team such as Aziz Ahmad, who was Penang’s top scorer in the 1950s and team captain in the early 1960s. His nephews, Namat and Shaharuddin, also served the state football team; Namat led Penang to a 2-1 victory against Perak after heroically defeating Singapore in the semi-finals in 1974, in what was to be the state’s last Malaysia Cup final victory.

Nazir introducing a player to Lim during the jersey launch in February.

When the FAM first introduced the Malaysia First Division League in 1982, Penang was one of the founding members and went on to be the first champion. It was the first runner-up in 1983 but failed to win any major trophies from then until 1997. The early 2000s saw a brief revival as Penang became champion of the Super League in 2001 – winning the FA Cup for the first time – and the Charity Shield in 2002.

After that, things went downhill. In 2009 the club finished third from last in the Super League. Exacerbating the situation was the club’s critical financial condition: stories of footballers unpaid for up to four months surfaced. And the nightmare became reality in 2010 when Penang FA was relegated after collecting only 10 points for the season, finishing last.

But there is renewed hope now. Entrusted with RM19mil from the state for this year’s budget, which is a five-fold increase from the previous season, the Key Performance Index for this year is to be part of the top six and to consistently remain there. Nazir also hopes that the team will win at least one cup this year. “We have shown the world that we can rise up from the ashes, that we can score marvellous goals. Our confidence is high.”

Faiz Subri receiving the player of the month award.

 

Besides that, Penang FA tries to pay its players well. “These players have a short active footballing life,” explains Nazir, “so it is only fair for us to pay them highly for their services. And even after they retire, we have to help them to continue contributing, perhaps as a trainer. Overall, we take care of players’ welfare, medical, training, lodging and transportation (for foreign players).”

There is room for improvement – especially when it comes to infrastructure. In reality, Penang FA is still lacking in facilities – there is not even a permanent training ground; the team always has to rotate between Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Padang Polo, etc. Furthermore, Penang FA has to go through bureaucratic hurdles in order to use Stadium Bandaraya – what Nazir calls the sacred stadium, or stadium keramat – most of the time. There is another stadium in Batu Kawan, but unfortunately it is not really in an ideal state.

Fans supporting the team during the Super League match between Penang and Perak on March 1.

The People’s Sport

Football should become a platform for people of different backgrounds to come together and celebrate – regardless of ethnicity, religion and class. “When we launched the new season’s official jersey in February at Stadium Bandaraya, I saw many people from all walks of life come together to celebrate our team. The Malays came out Fikri Fisal is a simple guy who discovered the beauty of History while studying Actuarial Science at the University of Michigan. He wishes one day to be able to revamp the History subject in schools to be worthy of learning. He also admires professors with long white beards and is working hard to be like one. in force, and I was happy to see an increasing number of Chinese as well. You could feel the joy when the Chief Minister arrived at the pitch. On certain days, the fans do not want to leave the stadium. We have to turn off the lights to chase them off!” says Nazir, beaming with joy.

He hopes that public support for Penang FA will continue to increase until it truly becomes sukan rakyat – the people’s sport. He also looks to the day when local players Pennag FA can meet the benchmark set by foreign players. It is vital to have foreign players now so that they can set high examples for the local players to emulate; however, we cannot rely on them forever and should gradually lessen our dependence on them.

When asked what advice he would give his eventual successor, Nazir answers, “Of course nobody is indispensable in any job, but my successor will have to match my wonderful track record!” he says with a laugh. Penang FA has waited almost six years to return to the top flight, and it promises that it will be a constant challenger for the top six places.

Go Panthers Go!

Fikri Fisal is a simple guy who discovered the beauty of History while studying Actuarial Science at the University of Michigan. He wishes one day to be able to revamp the History subject in schools to be worthy of learning. He also admires professors with long white beards and is working hard to be like one.



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