Malaysia Super League returns under a cloud in wake of player attacks

Ahead of their 2024-25 Malaysia Super League opener against Perak on Saturday, Terengganu showed their support for Akhyar Rashid and Faisal Abdul Halim -- who were both subject to violent attacks recently. Terengganu FC

With the Malaysia Super League, previously usually starting between January and March, transitioning to a campaign that crosses two calendar years -- akin to Europe's major competitions this term -- a later-than-usual start should have brought plenty of excitement and cheer as the 2024-25 season got underway this past weekend.

Instead, the return of the MSL was overshadowed by the repercussions of recent violence targeted at several prominent players.

In the past week or so, Malaysian football has been rocked by three separate incidents, which started when Akhyar Rashid -- currently on loan at Terengganu from Johor Darul Ta'zim -- was injured in a robbery outside his home.

It was followed by a horrific attack on fellow Malaysia international Faisal Abdul Halim, who was splashed with acid at a shopping mall two Sundays ago and initially in a critical condition.

Faisal was reported to have suffered fourth-degree burns which impeded his speech and mobility, although he is said to have responded well to a third surgery last Thursday -- a three-hour skin allograft procedure - and is walking again.

A third incident saw two men on a motorcycle approach the car of JDT veteran Safiq Rahim and smash its rear windscreen, although the former Harimau Malaya captain was unharmed.

Terengganu police stated that these attacks were unrelated but -- in a country where prominent sportspeople are usually adored rather than the subject of violence -- the resultant concern was enough for Selangor -- Faisal's club -- to withdraw from last Friday's Charity Cup match with JDT, which also doubles up as a league fixture, out of fears for the team's safety.

Although interstate rivalry is fierce in Malaysian football, and can sometimes result in extreme situations, there have not been any major incidents in recent times and JDT subsequently expressed disappointment over Selangor's decision, having given assurances over safety -- with police presence said to have been tripled for the tie.

It meant that the MSL season began sans its traditional curtain raiser but, also, with two of the country's biggest teams in action in anticlimactic fashion.

With JDT having won the past ten MSL titles, the big question on the field was always if this is the year any of the chasing pack can challenge them -- with Selangor among the usual suspects.

Now, without even kicking a ball, the Southern Tigers already have their first three points in the bag having been awarded a 3-0 win with the tie considered a "walkover".

In the absence of the duo, it was Terengganu who made the brightest start as they beat Perak 3-1, while Kedah Darul Aman and Sri Pahang were also 1-0 victors over PDRM and Kelantan Darul Naim respectively on Saturday.

Sunday's action saw Kuala Lumpur City draw 1-1 with Kuching City, while Sabah and Penang also shared the spoils in a goalless stalemate.

It remains to be seen what the immediate future holds for Selangor with no statement yet on their next match -- although that will be a home game against Kedah on May 18.

And while, even among fans, there were differing views over Selangor's decision to opt out of their campaign opener, it is their prerogative to decide what they deem best for all involved at their club -- even more so given all that has happened.

There is never any place for violence. And perhaps it was indeed a matter of coincidence that these three incidents in a short span of time all happened to prominent footballers.

Still, at what is usually an exciting time in the Malaysian football calendar, the start of a new MSL season certainly began under a cloud