M-League football woes: Clubs mired in unpaid salaries, financial sustainability issues despite guidelines

Clubs spending beyond their means seems impossible to curb, even with introduction of the Economic Control Program in 2019

Despite the Malaysian Football League (left) implementing the Economic Control Program, clubs such as Kedah Darul Aman FC is still financal woes due to overspending. (PHOTOS: AFC)
Despite the Malaysian Football League (left) implementing the Economic Control Program, clubs such as Kedah Darul Aman FC is still financal woes due to overspending. (PHOTOS: AFC)

AS THE M-League football authorities mull over a hybrid regulatory protocol to curb overspending by clubs, history suggests it will be in vain. The issues of unpaid salaries and financial sustainability among clubs continue to plague the domestic scene despite having numerous guidelines in place.

The most recent guidelines on financial prudence were included in the M-League competition manual for 2021. Malaysian Football League (MFL), the league operators independent from the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), had introduced the Economic Control Program (ECP) adapted from the Spanish LaLiga in 2019.

MFL had painstakingly put on paper the A to Z requirements - the budgetary break-even point, budgeted revenue and budgeted expenditures - as the template for clubs to adhere to. Clubs were required to submit their financial statement by June every year and every submission must go through the validation body and sanctioning body within the MFL structure.

But frankly speaking, I am in the dark as to whether the ECP was being fully enforced or not. It has gone under the radar because insiders claim if it was fully implemented, the Super League – the top tier competition – would be contested by only two teams, Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) and Selangor FC.

Drive to fix fundamentals in club licensing requirements

Having turned semi-pro in 1989 on the heels of the heady days of the Malaysia Cup, Malaysian football turned professional on paper in 1994. But the seeds of FAM’s effort in privatising the league were sown only in 2015, with the establishment of Football Malaysia Limited Liability Partnership (FMLLP), the forerunner of MFL.

The cost of running the league, after all, was beginning to take its toll on FAM’s annual budget. The total operating expenses to run Malaysian football was almost RM64 million in 2013, based solely on the FAM’s income and expenditure statement for the year ended 31 December 2013.

So when it was announced that FAM would be getting a guaranteed minimum amount of RM70 million a year in a deal with leading international media rights company, MP & Silva, beginning 2016, it was seen as a boon.

The two parties then set up FMLLP to oversee the running of the five properties owned by FAM – the Super League, the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Sultan Ahmad Shah Cup or Charity Shield and the Malaysia Cup.

The deal was expected to be worth around RM1.26 billion to FAM to be spread over 15 years starting 2016, - a colossal figure that was unprecedented in the domestic game. Although the whole deal never materialised as both parties were involved in a legal wrangle, FMLLP went ahead with the drive to fix the fundamentals.

So ahead of the 2016 season, FMLLP issued a warning that M-League teams who failed to meet club licensing requirements by 2018, face the prospect of being excluded from the Super League and Premier League. All 24 teams in the top two leagues were given two years to become wholly incorporated.

Tough to curb clubs' spendings?

Yet clubs spending beyond their means was seemingly impossible to curb. Kedah Darul Aman FC’s majority shareholder recently confirmed that the club were facing financial woes, resulting in the players, coaches and team officials being owed salaries since August.

Tan Sri Dr Mohd Daud Bakar said they have settled part of the August salary for all players and team officials and plans were afoot to pay off the remaining month’s salary.

Dr Mohd Daud is a respected figure in the financial sector, being chairman of the Shariah Advisory Council of Bank Negara, the Central Bank of Malaysia and the Securities Commission. So he entered the scene with the hope of emerging as the white knight for his State team.

By now he must have discovered that wages in Malaysian football is among the highest in the region.

In 2018, according to the document leaked the social media, the highest-paid players in Kedah then were Liridon Krasniqi and Sandro da Silva – both of whom received a staggering RM128,670 per month, while Baddrol Bakthiar was the highest-paid local player with a salary of RM77,109 per month.

The jump in the wage bill was a result of the knock-on effect following Malaysia’s AFF Cup victory in 2010. In less than a decade, Malaysia gained notoriety for being ranked in 2019 for cases of unpaid salaries with a total of 262 filed by coaches and players against their teams.

In layman terms, the success of a league depends on the club’s investments. If all teams invest a similar figure of RM40 million a year, the league will be balanced. If we were to allow one or two teams to be spending RM70 million a season while others struggle, it will create polarisation.

With the renewed calls for the reintroduction of the salary cap shot down by the players who prefer the market forces to determine the range, the naysayers claim there is no solution in sight.

The trouble with Malaysian football is, no one wants see the big picture, either by choice or by design. In the final analysis, all forms of regulatory guidelines will go down the drain with the tendency for majority of clubs to mismanage their finances.

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