Johor Bahru is a city on the rise. With rents and property prices sky high in prime Malaysian spots such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, attention and investment is making its way south to the place that sits just across the Causeway from Singapore. Despite a regional reputation for high crime, willing buyers of apartments and houses are arriving every day and not just from the neighbouring city state. One recent addition was Pablo Aimar.
These days, the most serious crime in Johor, in a football sense at least, is not watching the Argentine in action. Aimar used to be Lionel Messi’s boyhood hero and plenty of young fans in Johor and elsewhere in Malaysia now know how the Barcelona star felt. They can be seen outside the Larkin Stadium (where Aimar scored for Argentina against England in the 1997 World Youth Championships) hours before kick-off, waiting for a glimpse of the Clown.
The 34 year-old may have made a few laugh by turning up on the southern edge of the Malay Peninsula but he’s part of something new as Johor Darul Takzim, a team that is all too easy to call “Malaysia’s Manchester City,” seeks national and then regional domination. Backed by the royal family, JDT, as they are popularly known, have money, as well as space in the trophy cabinet, to spare.
There are stories told among coaches of other teams Johor officials, in order to get their men, pile the negotiating table with the offered annual salary in cash. If so, it is a tactic that has proven to be successful. Other teams have been left helpless if JDT come calling. The entire Malaysian defence calls the Larkin Stadium home and even talented foreign players such as Hariss Harun of Singapore are seemingly content to warm the bench.
As a simple writer, it is hard to imagine what size table is necessary to hold $2.5 million in cash. That is what Aimar is reportedly earning and anyone who saw him in action this season will not begrudge a single Ringgit even if the team have yet to learn how to get the best out of the former Valencia and Benfica star. The touches and skills are still there but the runs of the teammates are not quite.
When it works though, it is a treat. The opening goal against Pahang earlier this month was as good a strike as you would have seen anywhere in the world that weekend. The ball pulled back from inside the area for the advancing Argentine to hit first time from inside the ‘D’ and into the top right corner was as satisfying as getting extra egg with your Nasi Lemak. His influence is there for all to see and when he was taken off after an hour against defending champions Lions XII, JDT’s 2-0 lead did not last long.
JDT are struggling to get into gear and out of midtable but fans are confident that they will make the break for the top soon. Aimar should be there to lead it despite some enigmatic comments earlier in February. "I don't enjoy playing so much," the 34-year-old told The New Paper when asked if he was having a good time in Malaysia before adding: "It is difficult to play." He has not said much since leaving journalists and fans to speculate on what he actually means.
It was almost forgotten after a storm followed a February FA Cup tie -- the country takes its knockout competitions seriously -- with T-Team at home. The visitors left the stadium at half-time after complaining of being attacked in the tunnel by JDT staff. Football Association Malaysia (FAM) investigated but with the conflicting stories given, had to award the tie to the home team. The game may have stopped early but the drama continued with comments made by T-Team midfielder Irfan Abdul Ghani that nothing untoward had happened in the tunnel though the Johor-born star went missing when his teammates were swearing the truth of their account on the Quran and has reportedly since quit football altogether.
Such are the sagas constantly played out in Malaysian football but at the moment, it really is mostly about what is happening on the pitch. It’s early days but few Asian leagues can match current attendances in the former British colony. Pahang are averaging 34,000 (up from 16,000 in 2013), JDT 27,000, Kelantan 21,000 (up from 12,000), Sarawak 17,000 and Perak are currently doubling last season’s figures at 16,500.
The league, until recently foreigner-free due to FAM decree, is increasingly cosmopolitan. Pahang’s central defensive line features Pakistani captain and former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman and Jamaica’s Johnson. the Indonesian Messi Andik Vermansyah is at Selangor and one of South Asia’s biggest stars Ali Ashfaq is in the second division and looking very good. Coaches are from far and wide too with English, Australian, Spanish, Dutch, Singaporean and Dutch bosses locking horns with the locals.
In China, the spending of Guangzhou Evergrande has taken the team from the second division to three Chinese Super League titles to the continental championship. It also sparked other clubs into action.
JDT’s activity has not yet produced the same effect in Malaysia but there are signs that it will and while that is exciting for fans and media, the danger could be that rivals overstretch themselves financially in order to keep up. But few supporters anywhere complain when their teams spend money and slowly the standards are improving, even if they are let down by poor playing surfaces, too much political interference and the ever-present spectre of match-fixing that even when it is absent, never really is.
Even without Aimar it would be an intriguing season in Malaysia but the Argentine adds more than a touch of class. For fans of JDT and plenty of others, if he is good enough to be Messi’s hero, he’s good enough to be theirs. At the moment, Johor really is the place to be.