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SINGAPORE: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a prince,” said the Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim as he signalled interest in buying Spanish football club Valencia through his Instagram on Tuesday (Mar 2).

Interest from Tunku Ismail, should it become reality, could be a game changer for Valencia. 

Despite his disclaimer above of not being a businessman, Tunku Ismail is no stranger to the sport having taken over Johor FC in 2012, a middling team in Malaysia.  

“I am not new in football. I’ve created a club from every year fighting relegation to a dominating champion. I’ve won 16 titles in eight years. We are the biggest in Southeast Asia and one of the biggest in Asia,” he added on his Instagram stories on Tuesday (Mar 2). 

“I want to expand my empire, spread my wings, and go for new challenges.”

A GAME CHANGER FOR JOHOR

Indeed, the crown prince has transformed the club of his home state. Now known as Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), the club is dominating Malaysian football after winning the last seven Super League titles.

In 2015, the Southern Tigers became the first from the country to win the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier regional competition.

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They made their debut in 2019 in the group stage of the continent’s premier tournament, the AFC Champions League, where they even beat defending champions and Japanese giants Kashima Antlers. 

The JDT can also claim to be among the biggest and best-run club in Southeast Asia, a football-loving region of over 650 million people. 

Under Tunku Ismail, JDT broke free of the traditional Malaysian mould where most clubs are run by state football associations and often beset by political differences and a lack of professionalism. 

A flow of investment led to the team buying the best local players and foreign stars, such as Argentina’s Pablo Aimar, who were a class above others in the league and helped raised standards. 

Such imports were greeted with facilities, support teams and a mindset that would not have looked out of place in the big leagues of Europe. 

A new purpose-built football stadium with a 40,000 capacity was opened in 2020 in JDT Sports City. 

Malaysian football chief Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim wants his country's game against North

File photo of the Johor Crown Prince. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

A state of the art training centre was opened in 2016 which features, among other things, indoor pitches and swimming pools. At all levels, highly-qualified staff were brought in to ensure the players enjoyed the best possible support. 

A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN

All these have helped to create an inclusive identity around The Southern Tigers that can be felt, not just at the stadium where blue-clad fans create one of the best atmospheres in Asia but throughout the city. 

None of this existed a decade ago, which Tunku Ismail hopes will help uplift the standard of football administration across the country.

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“I am proud that JDT have our own business strategies, including commercialisation, to generate funds and invest in long-term projects instead of merely waiting for the state government to build infrastructure and even release funds on a yearly basis”, he said in November.

“JDT have now recorded multiple successes on and off the pitch while other teams are only today, in 2020, thinking of their new logos.”

Still, until other Malaysian clubs can improve to a similar extent to provide competition at home, JDT’s potential to become a genuine football force on the continent is limited.

It may be that the crown prince has reached the limits of what he can achieve in Malaysian football, and it therefore comes as little surprise he is thinking of expanding his horizons and turning his gaze has to Europe.

CHANGE FOR VALENCIA

This interest may be welcomed by the Valencia fans, many of whom have been clamouring for change at their club for more than a year now. 

It is no secret that Valencia’s current owner, Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, is less than popular among the club’s supporters.

In particular, one of the most ardent fan groups Salvem Nostre Valencia (Let’s Save Our Valencia) saw 500 fans demonstrate outside the club’s stadium protesting the sale of Valencia captain Dani Parejo and defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin last August.

Singaporean businessman Peter Lim (C), owner of Spanish La Liga football team Valencia and his wife

Singaporean businessman Peter Lim (C), owner of Spanish La Liga football team Valencia and his wife Cherie Lim (R) speak with Valencia’s president Anil Murthy AFP/THOMAS SAMSON

They even put up posters this week at a hotel owned by Lim in Manchester asking him to focus on Salford City (another club he bankrolls) and leave Valencia alone.

Since taking over in 2014, Lim has seen more protests and negative headlines than trophies and plaudits. 

READ: Commentary: Peter Lim’s romance with owning a football club appears in trouble

As things stand, Valencia – UEFA Champions League finalist in 2000 and 2001 and six-time Spanish champions – are fighting to stay in Spain’s top tier and sit in 14th, just five points clear of the relegation zone with 13 games remaining.

Star players have been sold. The club has seen six coaches in the six years since Lim took over.

Even the smallest possibility the tycoon could be on his way out has been well-received in Spain though the prospect of another owner from Southeast Asia may raise eyebrows.

THE TUNKU IS DIFFERENT

Fans may wonder what Tunku Ismail brings to the table and how he might differentiate himself from Lim and debunk the idea that he’s just another foreign wealthy owner with commercial interests and little or no understanding of the club’s heritage and history.

But Tunku Ismail offers a very different proposition from Lim, even if they are known associates – the two have had joint ventures in companies such as Singapore-listed Rowsley Ltd and Malaysian property development venture Vantage Bay, among others.

TMJ JDT

Johor crown prince posing with JDT players and staff when celebrating the club’s fifth consecutive league title. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan) 

Unlike Lim who took over Valencia with little or no previous experience in football, Tunku Ismail has a track record of football success.

Second, the crown prince does have an understanding of Valencia and had some links to it. His football team had coaching and player exchanges with Valencia in 2017.

Importantly, we also cannot discount the Pablo Aimar factor. The former playmaker played over 200 games for Valencia and was a key figure during the club’s successful spell in the early 2000s. He enjoyed a rejuvenation of his career under Tunku Ismail after moving to JDT in 2013.

Currently coaching the Argentinian under-17 national team, Aimar could join Tunku Ismail’s coaching set-up at Valencia, should the crown prince take over. His endorsement could be a needle-mover.

READ: Commentary: Could Sea Group’s Forrest Li be the next Singaporean owner of a global football club?

CHALLENGES REMAIN

Tunku Ismail knows he must win over the trust and respect of fans. 

“I’m not someone who will change your club logo or tradition … I’m here for glory, success and history. What does Valencia need? You need someone who knows about football, hungry for success, passionate and understands how big Valencia is as a club. First step. We need football people in the club. Full stop.”

Such words won’t change much initially. All potential owners talk of their respect for club traditions and their desire to take it to the next level.

Tunku Ismail’s task is to try to replicate his success in Johor at Valencia but he know the situation in Malaysia in 2012 is different from Spain in 2021. For one, the success of Johor was built from a low-base.

To take a team from the lower reaches of La Liga to the top has no guarantee of success given competition from global super clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Great leveller: Lionel Messi heads in against Valencia to equal Pele's record for goals scored

Great leveller: Lionel Messi heads in against Valencia to equal Pele’s record for goals scored for one club AFP/LLUIS GENE

Not only that, he had fans on his side from the beginning in Johor, where the royal family is revered, and that is unlikely to come easily in Valencia. Only visible success will win them over.

There’s also the elephant in the room – whether Lim want to sell the club in the first place despite the crown prince’s strong hints. Valencia’s President, Singaporean Anil Murthy, on Tuesday (Mar 2) told Spanish media that Lim had no interest in selling the club.

But that may change if the offer and the interested party are right. If Lim was to consider selling the club, Tunku Ismail is a strong candidate given their close relationship that could oil the deal-making. 

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John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers – The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).

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