Kuala Lumpur - An exhibition game between English Premier League club Tottenham and a Malaysian Select XI in Kuala Lumpur on May 27 has sparked criticism and even calls for a boycott for compromising the national team's preparations for important upcoming matches as well as interrupting the local league.
Ultras Malaya, a leading supporters group in Malaysia, has called upon fellow fans to boycott the exhibition against Tottenham as well as Liverpool on July 24.
"This is not about Spurs or Liverpool coming, or any English Premier League or La Liga team. We don't have a problem with them coming to Malaysia, this is about the timing," Alfadli Awaludin, a senior member for Ultras Malaya, told The Associated Press.
"Some individuals are taking advantage of the national side just to make some profit. Malaysian league clubs were supposed to have a match on May 20 but they were canceled. The league should come first before any exhibition match. We know we can't stop this happening but maybe we can make people think about who benefits from these games."
The Malaysia national team starts qualification for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup on June 11 against Timor Leste and then against Palestine five days later. The Malaysian team that takes on Spurs is basically the national team as well as five foreign players from top local league clubs.
"We should be preparing for the start of World Cup qualification," Awaludin said. "There is no benefit to the team itself, no benefit to the rankings. It is interrupting the local leagues, games have been canceled just to accommodate these matches. It doesn't help us prepare for the World Cup qualifiers."
Syahizan Amir bin Abd Wahab, president of the official Tottenham fan club in Malaysia, disagrees.
"Our national players will get a chance to play with world class players and they will learn something from it," he said. "Local players will benefit from this experience and the fans can witness the team and their idols playing here."
The debate is not just between fans. On May 8, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, head of a leading state football association as well as Johor Darul Ta'zim, the current champion of Malaysia, wrote to the minister of youth and sports Khairy Jamaluddin to complain about the exhibition. The next day, the Football Association of Malaysia issued a statement to explain the reasoning behind the game, saying the friendly games were "an opportunity for Malaysian players to battle against a quality side in tactical and physical aspects."
Dez Corkhill, commentator for Astro Sports, a Malaysian broadcaster that shows English Premier League and Malaysian League games, acknowledged the problems but believes such matches can be beneficial.
"There is a genuine buzz about the games...but there's no doubt that the games take some luster and attention away from the local league, and the all-embracing media coverage perpetuates the impression that European football is far superior to the local game," Corkhill said.
"There are benefits for the national team if they play the games, or for a club or state if they play the match but for the Tottenham match at least, guest players are in the squad which takes away any benefit."