Chance for FAS to improve local football, says Leonard Thomas
FAM's shock decision gives FAS opportunity to improve standard of domestic competitions
The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) has every right not to extend the LionsXII's participation in the country's domestic club competitions.
They run it, their sponsors help fund it and the nation's fans support it by turning out in their thousands at various stadiums every week.
The FAM's only goals are that the Malaysian Super League (MSL), the Malaysian FA Cup and the Malaysia Cup boost interest in the sport in the country and, crucially, help enhance the standard of the game.
It's decision not to extend the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) means Malaysia's developmental side Harimau Muda will also no longer feature in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League from next year.
The news came as a shock here and caught the FAS unawares, after negotiations over the last few months between the two parties had suggested the LionsXII and Harimau Muda would continue playing on either side of the Causeway.
The FAS must now ensure the 27-man squad of the LionsXII stay in professional football next season, and try to convince the team's sponsors to continue to back Singapore football.
This will complicate the mission to launch an improved S.League in 2016, especially at this late stage, but there is also an opportunity to boost interest and enhance the standard of domestic club competitions here.
There have been many happy people with the LionsXII's participation in Malaysia's football competitions, but there have also been loud detractors, among them those who support the S.League.
They've complained that the LionsXII are an expensive distraction that steals much-needed focus away from Singapore's domestic club competitions and, today, FAS president Zainudin Nordin and his top lieutenants simply have to get on with it and come up with a blueprint that works.
Boost the coffers of each S.League club, cut the slots from five to maybe three, but make sure each team sign better, younger foreign players. Set a stricter benchmark for fitness.
Armed with that blueprint, perhaps the FAS can ask for more help from Singapore Pools and Sport Singapore in the short term, at least.
And FAS chief Zainudin and general secretary Winston Lee, who are spearheading the region's bid to form the Asean Super League in 2017, must not allow this to distract their efforts to pull off that particular mission, because it has the potential to be a game-changer for Singapore, and the region.
I understand the FAS is mulling two options - field the LionsXII as a team in the S.League next season, or disband the entire set-up and find contracts for the players in the S.League, or elsewhere.
The first option is cleaner, the second will boost the S.League clubs that choose to sign LionsXII players. Both can work, although I hope salaries are not drastically compromised.
The top earner in the LionsXII ranks is the team's biggest star, Safuwan Baharudin, who collects about $15,000 a month. The lowest end of the salary scale is apparently around $6,000 a month.
Central defender-turned-midfield star Safuwan and top goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud are LionsXII players who could be set to play professionally abroad anyway, with the J.League a possible destination.
I'm sure the likes of top striker Khairul Amri, speedy winger Faris Ramli and defender Madhu Mohana will have no problems securing contracts, either with Malaysian sides or S.League clubs.
It is important the rest of the players also continue to play professional football.
Since their formation in 2011, the average age of the LionsXII squad has been around 23 years, which means these are footballers with long careers still ahead of them.
The LionsXII players have also formed the bulk of the national squad and the FAS needs to work out a calendar for the Lions to keep Bernd Stange's side regularly warmed up, working around the domestic calendar and Fifa's international dates.
It is a complicated subject, especially when the band of overseas-based players is all but certain to grow from the three who currently play in Malaysia - Hariss Harun, Baihakki Khazan and Shahril Ishak.
But the FAS' partners MP & Silva must deliver on this front.
While it came like a bolt out of the blue, the decision by the FAM must be viewed as an opportunity by the FAS to kickstart much-needed improvements in the domestic game.
Although the announcement by the FAM on Tuesday does leave a bad taste in the mouth here.
One wonders at the timing, with the 2016 season only months away, leaving the LionsXII to scramble with jobs on the line.
The admission by FAM deputy president Affandi Hamzah that they were making the decision public without informing their counterparts at the FAS, first, was also startling.
I would have thought the two national associations would share the closest ties in the region, and I wonder how difficult it would have been to even place a phone call to FAS president Zainudin or general secretary Lee yesterday informing them of the decision not to extend the MOU, before making the public announcement.
It is the kind of courtesy afforded to friends, it is also the professional way, and I believe the FAM has failed on both fronts.
For all the talk about bearing the costs of visiting teams and broadcast rights - which I know the FAS would have agreed to - I believe the FAM pulled the plug because it feels Singapore football is gaining more with the LionsXII playing in Malaysia.
Recent results of the Malaysian national team have not helped, especially when the Lions are still fighting for a spot in the 2019 Asian Cup finals.
After the thumping by Pahang on Tuesday, it is almost certain the LionsXII will end their Malaysia Cup journey on Saturday at the quarter-final stage.
As the curtain comes down on the team, the FAS must ensure Singapore football strives to stay ahead.
The FAS must quickly come up with a plan that moves Singapore forward.