Tuesday evening saw Kuala Lumpur FA beat Sabah 2-0 at the Stadium MPS to successfully tie off their campaign with promotion from the Malaysian Premier League, the second tier, to the Malaysian Super League, the top flight. Yes that is correct. KLFA, the one team of the Malaysian capital city, has been absent from the country’s top flight for 6 years. Being the only professional club within its administrative boundaries, the capital has had absolutely no representation in the highest level of domestic Malaysian Football.
FA Selangor, the team of the state that surrounds the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, has maintained its Erstligist (maintaining FBTG tradition of dipping into German vocabulary when English fails us) status for several years now. But ask anybody who hails from there; Selangor is most definitely not Kuala Lumpur. The tense fixture charmingly known as the Klang Valley Derby between the two is not an inner-city derby, rather a fixture between two geographically close clubs.
This may seem odd. I would wager that you, the reader, would fail to name any other city in Malaysia besides Kuala Lumpur. And don’t exit the browser to cheat and look at G.Maps. In a country whose capital city dominates many areas of life, such as politics, industry, manufacturing, business, economics, fashion and commerce, it is the other regions that dominate Football today. In the majority of countries, irrespective of development levels, the capital usually boasts a team capable of regularly competing for honours (the USA being the perennial exception). Not in Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur FA has had success though. Go back 30 years and it was one of the dominant sides, winning several league titles. But poor management and a compounding series of debts resulted in consecutive relegations to the Malaysian 3rd tier in 2013 from which the slow and painful process of returning to the highest division has just been fulfilled in the past 24 hours. Sat at the top of the Malaysian Premier League with two games to go and a 4 point lead over 3rd place PKNP (Terengganu in 2nd level on points with KL but with an inferior goal difference), victory would have ensured promotion. A 2-0 win was the result, even though Sabah had 2 goals ruled offside.
KLFA had chosen a policy of free entry to all KLFA fans to try and boost crowd figures for the evening. But as you can see from the photos, the terraces were anything but rammed. A group of young lads in bucket hats to the right were drumming and chanting behind aggressive fence flags, which were presumably festooned with the world “Ultras”, but apart from that, the atmosphere was low. And despite the unsocial Tuesday night game scheduling, a free ticket and the chance to “be there when it happens” could not draw big crowds to watch the Football team of the biggest city play. Why not?
A Sabah fan based in KL told me what I had long suspected. Take a good hard browse through the history books of Malaya’s various states and the names that crop up are Selangor, Melaka, Johor, Terengganu, Singapura (prior to it becoming a separate nation), Perlis, Kelantan and Kedah. These were the powerful states, kingdoms and sultanates that the Portuguese, Dutch and British came into contact with from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Kuala Lumpur, whose name literally translates into English as something like “muddy river bank”, was barely a city, let alone capital and its own administrative federal district.
But, as the British moved in to take over the various Malayan states (applying a much softer colonial touch than had been seen in other Asian parts of the British Empire), bringing them together for the first time into one entity that in the future would become Malaysia, the industrial revolution was in full force and one mineral was discovered in great abundance at the site of Kuala Lumpur. Tin. The technology was introduced to extract and refine the Tin, the price of which subject to continued inflation, and the one key resource needed to do the work naturally followed. People rushed to the fledgling city from the various Malayan states, Tamil India, Sumatra and China to take advantage of the valuable in-demand commodity and to work in the mines. The city grew exponentially in size and the road was paved for the future Malaysia’s famed diverse population to flourish. In little over 150 years, the city went from barely existing to the home of 7 million.
Why does this matter in the context of Football fans? Because there are very few people who can claim to be “Kuala Lumpurian”. Even if you are born in the city, your parents and grand parents probably were not. In contemporary times, migrants are still flocking to the city for work, and the result is that a lot of the people living and working in KL still identify more with their previous home. There is little civic pride in KL because nobody is really from there; the residents still identify as being from Sabah, Melaka, Pahang, Canton and Bengal etc. It would make sense therefore that fewer people would take an interest in watching KLFA games, because KLFA doesn’t represent their background. Once again, we see Football fandom acting as a medium for expression of identity.
After the game the Ultras ran onto the pitch to celebrate, a piece of passion I was happy to see. The police maintained an uneasy eye over the proceedings but did not intervene. The celebrations were enthusiastic and engaging for fans, even if there were not many of them. Let’s see how the KLFA gate figures develop next season in the Malaysian Super League. KLFA playing at home to JDT will be a cracker.