Perhaps a little unfairly, the Super League and Premier League receive the lions' share of Malaysian fans and media attention in the country. The lower leagues, the M3 and M4 Leagues, which are contested mostly by amateur and semi-pro teams, are relatively little known.
While footballers plying their trade in these two leagues may not be as glamorous as their top tier counterparts, their hardwork to excel at their respective cannot be dismissed, especially considering that many of them hold a regular, day job.
One such player is Afif Najmi Izwan, who plays for Klang Valley-based Melawati FC in the M3. Afif had formerly played for the Kuala Lumpur youth team and then the Malaysia national futsal team, but in the end decided to start a career as a commercial pilot in 2015, a decision that was motivated by the fact that both his father and brother too are airline pilots.
Afif (left) was one of the pilots who helped fly an airplane carrying passengers from Iran to Malaysia during the early days of Covid-19 outbreak
He never really abandoned his passion in football, and began playing for Melawati in the social leagues, when they were still known as DDM FC. He remained on their books when they joined the M3 for the 2019 season.
In a telephone interview with Goal, the player who hails from Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur revealed what it takes to play semi-pro football in Malaysia.
Perhaps owing to his comfortable regular job, when asked about his interest in continuing to play, Afif responded that he is not in it for money.
"I'm only paid RM50 everytime I'm listed for a matchday, and since I'm not paid training allowance because I can't train regularly, there's not much money in it for me. I'm playing football because I still have the passion for it. I've been playing football for long, and the feeling for it never quite goes away.
"Furthermore, I've been with these boys for a long time, since they were still playing in the social leagues, so we have a strong camaraderie. Juggling between work and football is a little taxing, but being able to play with friends makes it all worth it," explained the pilot with over 4,000 hours of flying experience.
Match Game Week 4 - #12 Afif Izwan Our very own Drogba! 🖤⚽ . Showing you how #DDMFC put on a show. #HalaDDM ———————————————- SPONSORED BY: @theaboosbarbershop & @kazza_jerseys
His Melawati teammates and staff too are mostly semi-pros, who hold regular jobs elsewhere during the day.
"Although there are a few who play full-time, many hold regular jobs elsewhere. As for the staff, although the head coach, Mat Zan [Mat Aris] is a full-time coach, the other coaches are not doing it fulltime.
"For example last season, our first season in the M3, the money wasn't much, they were practically volunteers. We have the assistant coaches, the physio, bookkeepers, who are all involved on a parttime basis," he noted.
By his own admission, Afif does not get to train with the team often, but he explained that Melawati's training sessions, held around four times a week, are diligently attended by the team members despite their work commitments.
"From the get go, the club management is accepting of the fact that my attention will be divided with my profession as a cargo pilot for [budget flight airline] AirAsia, so my training participation is limited. Thankfully, my flights usually arrive back in Malaysia at night or early in the morning, so I can still play matches in the evening.
"Luckily, most of my teammates can commit to training better than I can. Despite their non-football obligations, I can say that almost all of them can attend training sessions. They each get paid a training allowance as well as a monthly sum, unlike me, which I think is fair considering that my involvement with the team is fairly limited," stated the Shah Alam resident.
4-0 against @official_penjarafc ! Well done boys,good start for us💪🏻 Scorer :- @afif_asyraf @afifinho @_hkimsiswzr Own Goal #ddmfc #m3league #haladdm
Being forced to occassionally put their day job ahead of their footballing commitment is among one of the things that separates the pros from the semi-pros. For a lot of them, the safety of a consistent pay comes first.
"I was listed on the matchday squad quite a few times last season, but let's say I have a match coming up and am also scheduled for a flight around the same time. I'll first try switching assignments with another pilot, but if that's not possible, then I have to opt to fly over playing.
"When AirAsia still had a semi-pro team (first as AirAsia Allstars, then as Petaling Jaya Rangers, who competed in the third tier from 2015 until they withdrew in 2018), I was invited to play for them, but I declined because the squad members had to play fulltime, and I wanted to obtain more flying hours in order to receive a payraise.
"In fact, there are a number of semi-pro guys who perhaps could make it as a full-time player, but they prefer having a steady pay from their regular employment, with the playing allowances supplementing their income. I think Melawati have two or three players like them. I've heard that some players are getting paid around RM200 per match to play in the social leagues, while M3 guys get more depending on the club and sponsors," he detailed.
While there have been Malaysian players who have successfully made the transition from semi-pro to playing fulltime in the country, the 29-year old is reluctant to entertain the notion of turning professional even if an offer comes, when it was posed by Goal.
In contrast, Felda United goalkeeper Zarif Irfan Hashimuddin had been working as a baggage handler for AirAsia when he started playing for the Allstars. He eventually turned pro for good, earning moves to Selangor and PKNS FC, as well as a centralised training call-up for Malaysia.
"That's a tough question!" he responded with a laugh. "But I'll most likely stick to flying due to my age and how uncertain the economy is now due to the Covid-19 pandemic."
Despite his personal reservations about playing fulltime, Afif is however adamant that there are lower tier players that could make the cut in the top leagues, if given the chance.
"A lot of them had been disheartened at not making the cut when they were younger, around 22 or 23 years old, and they decided to not pursue the professional game. One of the reasons for this is that Malaysian top clubs don't really do proper player scouting, and they in the end miss out on these good players who somehow had slipped through the cracks.
"Our league pyramid has a good basic structure, but it needs to be run properly. One good example is Dirga Surdi (former M3 player who is now playing in the Super League for PDRM FA); he was spotted playing in the Selangor Champions League, which then brought him to the attention of his current team. This is why the top clubs should do better scouting [in the lower leagues]," he suggested.
But with the coronavirus outbreak resulting in the abandonment of the lower tier football in Malaysia this season, Afif lamented the players' welfare.
"I'm sure FAM (Malaysian FA) has its reasons for cancelling the rest of the season, but the players have been left in a lurch by it, especially those whose income depend on them playing.
"To be honest, Melawati too are not doing good financially at the moment, and with AirAsia expected to conduct another round of retrenchment next week, these are uncertain times for me," he noted.
With semi-pro football providing the base for the Malaysian league pyramid, it is hoped that Malaysia's football administrators have something planned in the future which would ensure that the talent pool that is the country's part-time players, Afif being one of them, is not kept away from the game for too long.