There has been a steady flow of Australian footballers to and from Malaysia’s top flights since the 1990s.
The likes of Alistair Edwards, Scott Ollerenshaw and Mehmet Durakovic carved impressive reputations for themselves in the multicultural, football fervent South East Asian nation.
Yet while regularly a couple, sometimes a few, Australian players have called Malaysia home each year, in 2015 record numbers of ex-A-League men have inked deals with clubs on either side of the South China Sea.
Currently a dozen former A-League players are plying their trade with teams in either the Malaysian Super or Premier Leagues, representing a marked increase on previous seasons and perhaps suggesting the start of a long-term pattern of significant numbers of players arriving at outfits in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Kota Bharu, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.
Arguably the most prominent Australian to transfer to the Malaysian Super League (MSL) this season was former Socceroo Robbie Cornthwaite. The 29-year-old defender linked with Selangor FA from K-League Classic club Jeonnam Dragons in January, and has since become a popular figure at the Shah Alam Stadium.
At 6’6″, Cornthwaite is one of the tallest players in the MSL, so it’s perhaps apt that his first foray into South East Asian football is at a club known colloquially in the culturally diverse country as Gergasi Merah – the Red Giants.
“Australians have got quite a good reputation in Malaysia,” Cornthwaite told The Roar from just outside Kuala Lumpur.
“I know particularly at my club that throughout their history they’ve had a number of Australians, and some who have done very well. Mehm Durakovic [Cornthwaite’s coach at Selangor] is a bit of a club legend here, and there’s a whole host of players who have enjoyed really successful times in Malaysia.
“Australians, other than the fact they usually have bigger bodies than the local players, bring a real work ethic and that 100 per cent commitment, that fighting spirit, that sometimes lacks a little bit in Asian football.”
Clearly Cornthwaite has made a strong start to life as a Selangor player. In the first half of the MSL season he’s featured regularly, chipped in with a goal, and helped his side to three points from top in Malaysia’s first division.
Of the 11 former A-League players currently at clubs in the MSL, Cornthwaite’s Selangor are positioned second-highest at the competition’s mid-point, and his personal form has been recognised with selection in a ‘Malaysia XI’ to take on English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur later this month.
“So far this season I have been performing really well,” Cornthwaite said.
“Malaysia have actually got games against Liverpool and Tottenham this month, but against Tottenham they have invited five foreigners to play. I’ve just been selected to play against Tottenham on the 27th of May, and obviously that’s a huge feather in my cap.
“I have enjoyed the first few months of my time in Malaysia and I would definitely love to stay on here for a few more years. But at the same time I am under no illusions – if I don’t play well I won’t get to stay. Changing foreigners is a business here, you have to perform.”
Cornthwaite – who made the AFC Champions League final with Adelaide United during his six-season stay with the Reds – has made a point of following and keeping in touch with the MSL’s other Australian representatives.
At FELDA United is former Perth Glory youngster Ndumba Makeche, who Cornthwaite says has impressed him with his performances. Makeche’s side was promoted to the MSL from the second division last year, but despite its foreign players having a significant role to play in their successful 2014 season the club still opted to replenish the vast part of its overseas contingent.
Cornthwaite says that any player that comes to Malaysia thinking that they are going to cruise could well be in for a shock. These days many Malaysian clubs are investing significant funds into their squads, and the owners and supporters demand a return in the form of silverware.
“I think a lot of people would come here expecting to relax and to finish off their career or something along those lines, but it’s extremely intense and almost on a daily basis we get told that ‘the club cannot wait any longer to win a cup, that we must win a cup, that it’s been too long’. And these people are dead serious – you can see the emotion in their face and in their eyes. If you win a trophy you can pretty much get yourself a blank cheque, but if not then you could be out the door.”
Eliminated from the Malaysian FA Cup by Kuala Terengganu in March, Selangor will now need to win the MSL or the Malaysian Cup later in the year if Cornthwaite is to taste team success in his debut season in Malaysia.
The top 16 sides across the MSL and MPL are permitted entry to the Malaysian Cup from October onwards, and Selangor are the best performing team in the history of that competition having claimed the crown an impressive 32 times and been runners-up on 15 occasions since 1921.
Teaming up with Durakovic could well provide the perfect partnership for Cornthwaite to realise domestic glory, given the former Melbourne Victory coach turned Selangor manager is the only foreigner to have ever won the Malaysian Cup three times (in 1995, 1996 and 1997).
Still, Cornthwaite and his teammates know they will need to crack a five-season trophyless run if they’re to please their avid aficionados.
“We’ve had a good start to the season and I definitely feel that we have a very competitive team that can push to win a trophy this season,” Cornthwaite said.
“With a bit of luck hopefully we can get that trophy that they’re [the club and fans] so desperate to win. Certainly our fans deserve a trophy to celebrate. It’s a different level over here in terms of support. We play games that are ten hours drive away and yet our fans are there in their thousands.
“We have a minimum of 15, 20-thousand fans to all our home games, and they provide a really intense atmosphere. And whenever we play another club from around KL it feels as if we’re the home side because our supporters outnumber our opponents’.”
The cultural melting pot of Malaysia is a far cry from Jeonnam, Korea Republic where Cornthwaite spent the last four years of his life.
Nevertheless, the open-minded, Asia-inspired defender is soaking up the opportunity to live in one of the continent’s busiest and most energetic cities, and revealed he chose a life experience over approaches from China and, at this point, a return to Australia, when deciding his future late in 2014.
“Asia has really been my market,” he said. “Obviously I have played a lot of Asian Champions League football and done well, and after short discussions and learning a little bit more about the club I was full of confidence and looking forward to coming and trying my hand in Malaysia.
“The other big drawcard was the fact that I would be living in Kuala Lumpur, obviously a major Asian city and one with a very good lifestyle. With a young family, that was definitely a very big drawcard for me. There’s no shortage of restaurants, shopping, and things to see and do in KL, so for us it’s been a really good lifestyle change.”
Aside from Cornthwaite and Makeche, other Australian or former A-League players currently dotted around Malaysia include Ryan Griffiths, Jon McKain, Billy Mehmet, Brendan Gan, Mario Karlovic, Reinaldo, Matt Davies, Issey Nakajima-Farran, Patrick Gerhardt, Joel Chianese, and Cameron Edwards
“Everyone is contributing, everyone is playing, and the Aussie boys are representing themselves well. The A-League is seen as a really competitive, high-quality league in Malaysia, and the market really does look at those players and think that if they’ve done a job in the A-League, or been competitive, then they can do a job here.
“The professionalism of Aussies come from the A-League really adds a lot of value to Malaysian football,” Cornthwaite concluded.