Before the Covid-19 pandemic halted footballing activities all over the world as well as in Malaysia, one of the top 2020 football stories in the country was that of Selangor's sensational capture of 28 Mokhtar Dahari Academy (AMD) graduates.
The first batch of the national football academy trainees only finished their training and secondary education at the end of 2019, with their signings to Selangor's Premier League team and youth teams announced early the following year, but the effort to bring the likes of Luqman Hakim and Sikh Izhan to Shah Alam had begun since the middle of the year.
The Red Giants' success was attributed to one man; former National Football Development Programme (NFDP) chief executive Safirul Azli Abu Bakar, who utilised his good relationship with the boys to help the 33-time Malaysia Cup champions secure the graduates' services by November 2019.
Safirul's role at the club has not been a well-publicised matter, with club officials declining to disclose too much detail, until now that is. In a telephone conversation with Goal on Wednesday, he revealed his part in signing the AMD graduates, as well as his role at the club.
"I work for sports consultancy firm Sportswork, and have been there for a while now. In early 2019, we entered discussions with Selangor to offer consultancy services in preparation for their club privatisation efforts. In the end, both parties came to an agreement that Sportswork would assist the club on youth development matters.
"We devised a youth structure from scratch for them, utilising our experience with NFDP. We proposed ways to collaborate with existing NFDP centres, how to best form their own U-12, U-13, U-14, U-15, U-16 and U-17 teams, and how to work together with the state's sports school.
"Our firm is helping them set up their academy system. The club are working with Tunas academies, district training centres and the state sports school. NFDP bears half of the costs of running these set-ups, while Selangor pay for the other half. We're killing two birds with one stone that way; the centres are looked after while the club have their own youth set-up.
"The firm also proposed the hiring of key personnel such as a technical director, so that he could shape the way Selangor play, which then led to the formation of the Selangor reserve team. This team was envisioned as the future of the club's playing style. It was in a way us helping them restart their youth structure.
"The AMD boys' signing was not actually part of the deal. What happened was that we proposed that the club provide playing exposure to young players, no older than 21, as part of the system. It was only a coincidence that it led to the graduates' signing. These boys made the decision themselves, and opted to go with Selangor due to the likelihood of receiving playing minutes."
Although the Red Giants eventually signed 28 of these graduates, the 49-year old revealed that they were at first only keen on signing 12 of them.
"At first, the club only wanted 12 of the best graduates, out of the total 34 of this first batch of NFDP graduates, while [Malaysian champions] Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) have signed six. So what these boys did was they asked about their friends' future, and the club decided to take on the remaining 16, in order to help their transition. Their parents too wanted them to continue playing together for a little longer.
"This arrangement is admittedly a little unusual, but it happens. There have been stars who were signed by top clubs alongside a lesser player because the two players are close, and the club wanted to help their star signing adjust better to new surroundings.
"However, we did not promise all 28 of them that they would automatically get a spot on the Premier League team; we only said that they would be selected there if they're good enough, if not they would have to start from the Youth Cup team or the President's Cup squad."
While a few of the boys have attracted European and overseas interest previously, only one of the 34 managed to earn a spot at a foreign club. Luqman Hakim, perhaps the best of his cohort, was scheduled to join Belgian side KV Kortrijk this year when he turned 18, however, the global coronavirus outbreak halted the plan and he too later joined Selangor.
Safirul explained that this happened due to an unfortunate decision that was made by the government (NFDP is run by Malaysia's youth and sports ministry).
"When these boys were 15, they were on the radar of European scouts because they were taken to play in European tournaments, but those trips were eventually stopped. The thing is, European clubs prefer to observe potential youth recruits over time, in Europe. They will never come to scout in Malaysia.
"That's why Japanese clubs take their young trainees to Europe every year. When the government stopped sending them to Europe, interest by European clubs in the boys waned."
The next best thing for his former charges is to join JDT and Selangor, who according to him are serious about their youth development functions.
"Selangor and JDT are the two clubs who are constantly scouting for youth talents, and many young players hope to play for these two teams. We all know where JDT are, but the Red Giants have revamped their training capabilities thanks to the hiring of a technical director (German trainer Michael Feichtenbeiner). All their youth coaches now administer a training regime devised by him, and they all report to him, which is a system that has already been practised at AMD.
Michael Feichtenbeiner. Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images/DFB
"But the AMD graduates signed by Selangor all have a clause in their contract that will allow them to leave for free if they receive an offer from Europe in the first year of their contract. It may be a permanent move or a loan spell, but Selangor will need to let them go."
Although the ease with which Selangor signed many of the graduates, all without having to pay a development fee, was criticised, given the fact that very few Malaysian clubs develop their own young players, the Sportswork business development director surprisingly thinks that it's not the time for the clubs to establish their own academy yet.
"For now, it's redundant for Selangor or any other clubs to set up their own dedicated academy; because the best trainees will have already been scouted by NFDP. It's better for the clubs to work together with NFDP in developing young players seriously. They don't have to spend too much money, and at the same time they can also register the already-established NFDP centres as part of their own youth set-up.
"When I was at NFDP, I did offer for clubs to share youth development responsibilities, by paying Tunas academy coaches' allowances, but very few of them took up the offer. In comparison, the Johor state NFDP head coach is also a coach in the JDT system. Selangor have also started doing the same thing, by providing equipment, training kits and helping maintain the school pitches that are used for training.
"NFDP remains relevant until all Malaysian clubs have their own youth academy that trains children from the age of seven. When all clubs have their own academy, especially for trainees aged seven to 12, maybe then AMD will switch operations; from a place where the best talents live, study and train together all year round, to one where the best of the best is gathered from across the country twice or thrice a year, just like France's Clairefontaine academy.
"For me personally, NFDP needs to be judged by their ability to produce at least one player who plays club football in Europe, and five in Asia, by 2024, the tenth year of its establishment. Only when we produce enough quality players can we start talking about Malaysia qualifying for the World Cup."
Sportswork is a sports consultancy agency with a client list that includes Malaysia's ministry of youth and Sports and telecommunications company TM.