Since 2014, Johor Darul Ta’zim have consecutively won the Malaysian Super League. In the history of Malaysian football, there has been no team as dominant for as long as JDT have. Unlike many Southeast Asian clubs, JDT has the financial muscle and is run exceptionally well. Under the leadership of the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Idris ibni Sultan Ibrahim, JDT not only dominated the domestic league but also became the first Southeast Asian club to lift the 2015 AFC Cup (Asia’s secondary tier continental competition).
In many ways since its rebranding in 2012, there has been a high-profile transfer policy, with many former international stalwarts donning the JDT jersey. Former Spanish international forward, Dani Güiza, and Former Italy Under-21 midfielder, Simone Del Nero, were the first high-profile signings. While former internationals had played in Southeast Asia before, what made these signings different was how they directly transferred from European topflight teams. Güiza came from Getafe while Del Nero made the move from S.S Lazio. Argentinian internationals, Pablo Aimar and Luciano Figueroa (who manages JDT right now), as well as Sierra Leone international Alhaji Kamara are other examples of players coming from topflight European teams to JDT.
It’s not just signing foreign “Galácticos”. JDT has also embarked on a massive scouting programme to unearth European footballers, with topflight experience, who have Malaysian ancestry. Examples include Spanish born brothers Natxo and Kiko Insa, and Canadian born La’Vere Corbin-Ong. JDT also has signed multiple high profile national and regional players as well. Singaporean icons such as Harris Harun, Sharil Ishak, and Baihakki Khaizan have all represented JDT. In fact, Harun is the current JDT captain. Brazilian striker Diogo tore up the Thai league 1 with Buriram United scoring an impressive 132 goals in 154 games for the club. Diogo made the switch to JDT in 2019 has remained there since.
The club has serious finances through the backing of the Crown prince of Johor which enables them to procure these players. However, one cannot attribute the success of JDT to finances alone. If anything, the most important factor in influencing JDT’s success has to be the role played by the crown prince, Tunku Ismail (TMJ). TMJ has not just pumped in cash but has provided the club with much needed stability. Prior to the creation and rebranding of JDT, the state of Johor had 4 footballing teams: Johor FA, Johor FC, and Muar FC. Their performances in their respective leagues were poor with most clubs, if not all, being constant relegation contenders. Once TMJ became the President of the Johor Football Association, he imitated a strategic overhaul of the current clubs. Gone were the Johor clubs and in their place three teams were born: JDT, which represents the state of Johor in the MSL (the Malaysian topflight), JDT II which is the feeder team of JDT in the Malaysia Premier league (the second tier), and JDT III which is an under-21 team that is a feeder team to JDT II.
It is unsurprising that Tunku Ismail got his inspiration for JDT’s youth set-up from the youth systems in Germany and Spain. It is no secret that TMJ is an avid football fan and his commitment to the club Is testament to how much he loves the sport. One only needs to look at the new state of the art Sultan Ibrahim stadium to understand how invested TMJ is.
What TMJ brought to the table was a doable plan for success that he executed systematically. Johor now regularly play in the AFC Champions League. They have raised the calibre of their local Malaysian players through the exposure to such competitions but also via hiring excellent coaching staff and the construction of premier training facilities.
TMJ saved a sinking ship and has steered it upwards onto success in Asia and domination in Malaysia. Sure, he may be a crown prince loaded with money. However, at his core, he is a football fan and his desire to help transform his state’s team into a regional powerhouse stems from his passion for the beautiful game. Except for maybe Thai clubs, Southeast Asian teams are nowhere near the level of other Asian clubs. The constant thrashing of most teams dealt by Australian, Japanese, Korean, Iranian and Saudi Arabian teams in various stages of the continental competitions is a testament to the gulf in disparity. Perhaps teams in the region need to embrace TMJ’s philosophy: a sound strategic long-term plan together with enduring commitment from owners