JDT need to be challenged as Malaysia football aims higher for 2018

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The end of 2017 could not come quickly enough for most Malaysian football fans after a disastrous year for the national team and numerous off-the-field problems.

The only way, surely, is up this year, with hopes for a better showing at all international levels, a more competitive league and an end to the seemingly endless administrative problems.

Here are five wishes for Malaysian football in 2018.

1. Competitive showing at the AFC U23 Championship

At senior level, Malaysia's international fortunes are at an all-time low, with the FIFA ranking having slipped to 174th, almost 100 places below the all-time high of 79 in 1993. The national side have just changed coach for the second time in a year after going through the whole of 2017 without a win.

Younger players are now being given more exposure at senior level but -- arguably because of this policy -- positive results have remained elusive.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The junior teams at under-19 and under-23 level enjoyed some success in 2017, and 2018 kicks off with Malaysia involved in the AFC U23 Championships for the first time.

Drawn with West Asian countries Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, the expectation is that Malaysia will find it difficult to get out of the group in China.

However, with a team who have many regular starters from the Malaysia Super League (MSL), there is a chance that Ong Kim Swee's team could spring a surprise and make it through to the knockout stage.

If that proves to be the case, then it would be a real fillip to the domestic game right at the start of the calendar year.

2. ASEAN players to enhance the Super League

The likes of Cambodia's Chan Vathanaka (Pahang), Singapore's Shahdan Sulaiman (Melaka United) and Indonesia's Evan Dimas (Selangor) will be playing in the MSL, due to the introduction of a fifth import slot reserved exclusively for ASEAN players.

It is an initiative that promises to encourage more regional interest in the league. It also provides a sterner challenge to run-of-the-mill Malaysian players who have been able to alternate between clubs from season to season, earning a good wage, without truly being expected to deliver results.

For ASEAN players, they now have "foreigner" responsibilities that should allow them to develop individually. In turn, that may help the national teams in Southeast Asia to improve their generally miserable regional reputation on the world stage.

3. JDT to have a worthy challenger

When one team utterly dominates, it suggests that the league is weak. The MSL is in real danger of falling into that category. A true challenger needs to emerge from the pack to consistently push champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) all the way.

Maybe this could be the year as Pahang's voluntary absence from the AFC Cup will enable them to fully focus on domestic matters.

Terengganu Football Association's decision to turn T-Team into Terengganu II and allocate funds to one club, rather than two, may enable that Northeastern hot-bed to begin to re-emerge as genuine contenders in Malaysia.

With a guaranteed place in the AFC Champions League group stages as the prize for winning the title, along with the financial benefits that will bring, it's now very financially rewarding for a team trying to knock JDT off their perch.

4. More professional administration

One of the worst advertisements for Malaysian football is the perceived lack of professionalism at an administrative level of its club and state teams.

We have seen the demotion of Felda United to the Malaysia Premier league for failing to provide the right documentation to the Football Malaysia Limited Liability Partnership (FMLLP).

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was unable to grant Kedah FC a licence to play in next season's AFC Cup before Pahang rejected an invitation to take their berth.

These are problems that having nothing to do with the game itself, but everything to do with a chronic lack of professionalism.

On the positive side, the fact that these issues are occurring suggests that administrative rules are finally being enforced. That can be only a good thing. Now it needs the teams to respond to that strong leadership and ensure that they are fully compliant off the pitch, as well as competitive on it.

A strong league with more professionalism will result in a more competitive national team.

5. A focus on the playing side

Too many headlines in Malaysian football in 2017 were about non-playing matters. Apart from administrative problems, we saw a much-publicised presidential campaign, coaches being "rested" (rather than fired) and crowd control issues.

This meant that JDT's fourth straight title and first Malaysia Cup, Perak's re-emergence under Mehmet Durakovic, and Selangor's laudable blooding of young players seemed to get secondary coverage, at best.

The reality is that the Malaysia Super League, Malaysia Cup and Malaysia FA Cup all have an ability to connect communities, build local superstars and provide excellent entertainment. Let's not lose sight of that.

Here's hoping that it's the football that talks in 2018, and that the behind-the-scenes headlines are kept to a minimum.