KUALA LUMPUR 12/1/2017. Interview with former AFC secretary, Peter Velappan at Royal Club Selangor, Kuala Lumpur. MALAYMAIL/Azneal Ishak.

THIS is probably the hardest knock on the head for Singapore and Malaysia football.

It comes from a sporting gentleman who ranks as Asia’s longest-serving football administration legend and who knows the “bola” game at the back of his hand, especially on either ends of the Causeway.

The powerful message from Peter Velappan: Please return football to the people.

In one of his most pointed interviews in recent years, clearly directed at the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) and Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), he laid out the cards that football must be run by passionate people with a big heart for the sport.

The 82-year-old Datuk Velappan is of the opinion that the highest position in the national football body on both Causeway corridors should be run “by someone who has a huge passion on football and has vast experience in sports management”.

“We should return the football to where it belongs, the ‘rakyat’. No politician, no minister or royalties should run. There are many people out there who are passionately involved in football,” he said.

Datuk Velappan is highly regarded in the world’s biggest continent as compelling and capable, influential and impressive and, most importantly, persuasive and potent in dealing with football diplomacy. He has been the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) General Secretary from 1978 to 2007. From 1963 to 1980, he was the FAM Assistant Secretary, during which he introduced professionalism in Malaysia.

In 1972, as team manager, he guided the Harimaus (nickname for national team) to qualify for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Remarkably, when he was appointed AFC General Secretary in 1978, he spearheaded the entry of a record number of member countries into the AFC, leading up to Asia hosting its first-ever World Cup Finals in 2002 in South Korea and Japan.

SUITABLE CANDIDATES

Politicians and royalties have hinted their interest for the FAM President’s post which fell vacant after incumbent Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah resigned.  Both Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim are among the suitable candidates to solve the leadership fiasco.

Over in Singapore, the three decades’ leadership by the politically-appointed grinded to an abrupt halt when FIFA (the world football governing body, based in Zurich) stepped in to mandate democratic elections, with the 40-odd affiliates set to vote on a new FAS President over the next two months.

Datuk Velappan, in a compelling and commanding voice, warned that FIFA will wield the hammer if FAM and FAS continue to have politically-linked leadership candidates. He said under Articles 13 and 17 of the FIFA Statute, it clearly stated that the government has no right to meddle in national football associations.

His omnipotent message: “If the government continues to interfere, I think the FAM will not exist anymore and the national team cannot take part in World Cup qualifying matches in the future. They have no right to meddle in national football associations.”

As a glaring example, FIFA recently suspended Indonesia after their government meddled in the country’s domestic league which saw Indonesia not competing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying campaign.

POOR WORLD RANKING

He advised that the longer-term solution for football stakeholders, on both sides of the Causeway, is to stop the finger-pointing and to amicably find a solution to lift failing standards. Malaysia is miserably ranked No 161 by FIFA while Singapore dropped to the lowest-ever position of 167.

Datuk Velappan, who has dexterous experience in both FIFA and the AFC for over 30 years, said he’s keen to offer an “advisory helping hand” especially terms of the development of Malaysian football with serious spade work to be done on a “pyramid-styled basis with maximum emphasis from the grassroots up”.

A former Loughborough College-trained education specialist, who started his career as a teacher in Seremban, Negri Sembilan in the 1950s, Datuk Velappan believes that on both perimeters of the Causeway, the longer-term strategy must be through the schools.

“The Ministry of Education should emphasise more on sports development at school level in order to produce more local talents,” he added. “I will urge the government to go back to the school level and focus on sports. It is no longer being seriously emphasised at that level. We no longer have sports for children when they enter school at the age of five or six years old.”

On the same wave-length as Datuk Velappan is the current AFC secretary-general Datuk Windsor Paul John, who viewed that Khairy can continue to run for the post as long as the FAM’s statue allowed the Rembau Member of Parliament to do so.

He said: “In case of FAM, they should look back at its statue whether it allowed the politician to run for any post within FAM. Khairy’s nomination for the post is still pending as the FAM secretariat has not decided on the final list of candidates.”

Datuk Windsor also reiterated that Khairy must get the approval from the Cabinet before he can proceed to run for the post in line with the government rules. The Cabinet recently barred ministers from contesting for position in any sports associations, unless they get approval from the Prime Minister and Cabinet members.

Besides Khairy and Tunku Ismail, former Home Ministry secretary-general, Tan Sri Aseh Che Mat and also former Kelantan Football Association president, Tan Sri Annuar Musa, the chief UMNO spokesman, are also nominated to run the FAM President post.

FEBRUARY 13 DEADLINE

The candidates who received nominations must decide whether to contest or not before the deadline on February 13. The final list of candidates will be tabled during the FAM Exco meeting before a formal announcement announced on Feb 20.

For the record, former Malaysian Prime Ministers – Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein – and former Defence Minister Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah used to be at the FAM helm.

Before retiring from global football in 2007, Datuk Velappan extraordinarily served under three AFC presidents: Malaysians Hamzah Abu Samah (1978-1994), Sultan Ahmad Shah (1994-2002) and Qatar’s Mohamed bin Hammam (2002-2007).

Over in Singapore, where the FAS is heralded as the oldest AFC affiliate, founded in August 1892, the only Minister who watched the reign as FAS President in recent years was Mah Bow Tan, the former Minister of National Development. But over the past 30-odd years, government-appointed politicians have tightly held on to the No 1 post, from Teo Chong Tee, Abbas Abu Amin, Ibrahim Othman, Ho Peng Kee and Zainudin Nordin.

But FAS is following the FIFA book after the world body asked Singapore to align its constitution to prevent third-party interference in football, and to allow for the fraternity to pick its own leadership from the grassroots clubs. This led to an FAS constitution amendment, for the first time in 125 years, approved at an extraordinary general meeting and elections should follow over the next two months.

An interim seven-member transitional council, led by lawyer Lim Kia Tong, has been mandated to run the show until March 31. Inside sources said 64-year-old Lim, a lawyer with more than 36 years of practice, who became an FAS council member in April 1999, before becoming vice-president from April 2007, may not contest for the new four-year leadership mandate.

NEW FACES

Among the refreshing new faces who’ve indicated interest to lead FAS is former Singapore defender Ramu Sasikumar, the 42-year-old Lion who is hero-worshipped as the “Shoulderman” (for his iconic solitary goal, from his shoulder, when Singapore won the Suzuki Cup in 1998 against Vietnam in Hanoi).

He has no political links and the heartlander clubs view him as the “Superman” to save the worst-ever languishing football fortunes and believe he may well be the next Nadesan Ganesan, the late iconic FAS boss of the famous mid-1970s who first fired up the “Kallang Roar” at the height of football fame.

His “bola” credentials are close to perfect as he played for Singapore from 1995 to 2001, donned professional football colours for SAF Warriors, Geylang United, Home United, Jurong FC and Tampines Rovers. He’s now the Executive Chairman of the Red Card Group, which has local and regional football interests, in even kick-starting the professional leagues in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Patrick Ang, the distinguished former national team manager in the 1990s and ex-President of S-League club Geylang United, saluted Sasikumar, his former stalwart player, as a “very good candidate”.

He added: “I admire his decision to come forward and serve Singapore football which badly needs a shake up. As I said before, it is going to be a massive job which requires someone with passion, experience and hunger to bring Singapore back to a decent level in Asean football. I salute the man.”

If he wins the upcoming elections, Sasikumar will probably be the first former international footballer to head an AFC affiliate at the right time FAS is set to celebrate its 125th anniversary as Asia’s oldest football affiliate.

He will likely be applauded by the grassroots as the new-found football saviour of the bona fide mould of legendary football heroes Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) and Michel Platini (France).

And it will surely leave Datuk Velappan smiling for a long time as the AFC legend seriously and sincerely wants football, on both corridors of the Causeway, to return to the people, with the top leadership helmed by passionate people with a big heart for the sport.

  • Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who knows Datuk Peter Velappan for 35 years as a global football legend and personal family friend.