JDT & Argentina: A Distinctive Relationship in Malaysian Football

On 19 July 2019, Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) wrapped up their season in the Malaysian Super League with a 3-3 against Terengganu after clinching this title almost a month ago. Among the scorer for them were Gonzalo Cabrera and Leandro Velázquez, two Argentine imports who have played a significant role in the club’s run this year, highlighting the strong links between JDT and Argentina.

Cabrera has been a mainstay for this team since arriving in 2017. He is known for being a reliable goal scorer and provider when necessary. Velázquez was only used sporadically as the one to pull the string from midfield. He was brought in following the club’s decision to revamp their imports quota this year. However, prior to this season he had already carved his name in the club’s most historical moment.

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JDT have been consistently winning the Super League crown since 2014 which earned them a place in the Malaysian Book of Records. This was made possible due to the club’s strong financial standing and solid management across all levels. By offering attractive remuneration, they have been able to assemble some of the best players in the country. But success on the field is not just confined to this alone. It would not take long for anyone to realize that this was not the only factor during this dominating period. The presence of Cabrera and Velázquez is evidence of this. To maintain this recipe of success, they have also added a delicious dose of Argentine asado flavour into the mix, a trusted synergy that has served the club stupendously since its debut in 2013.

A Twitter poll was recently conducted on ‘the clubs that are most associated with a country. Obviously, the usual suspects come to mind. The Dutch connection at Barcelona dating back to the arrival of Rinus Michel and Johan Cruyff in the 1970s; then there is the strong Brazilian influence at AS Roma or Liverpool’s close attachment to Scotland and Ireland. Closer to home, I could not help but notice JDT’s similar connection to Argentina since their resounding entry to Malaysian football, a correlation that exists even to this day.

Most will look at the start of this unique intimacy with the arrival of a certain player name Pablo Aimar. The fact is, way before the club’s formation, the presence of Argentine footballers had already been heavily felt in the southern state of Johor. Walter Ariel Silva spent 7 years with Johor FC (the precursor to JDT) from 2004 and was well known for his goal scoring exploits. Fellow Argentine Gustavo Fuentes joined him for a season in 2007. Both players left an incredible mark and were regarded as heroes among Johor fans.

In the 2012 Malaysian Premier League (MPL), Muriel Orlando was banging in the goals for Johor FA (the team which will be later rebrand as JDT II). A fan favourite, he was nicknamed “Pistol” for his consistency in front of the net. He left Johor at the end of 2013 season as the MPL’s second highest goal scorer. It was a surprise that he was not given a chance with JDT despite his ability in front of goal.

That was probably because JDT were looking at a premium name to stamp their mark. They made a huge splash by signing former La Liga top scorer Dani Güiza at the start of the 2013 season. But the Spaniard’s time at the club was a very brief one. They needed an urgent replacement and found one in Leonel Núñez. Núñez was named on the bench in a FA Cup tie against Selangor despite having arrived only in the eleventh hour. Desperately needing to overturn a 1-3 deficit on aggregate, JDT brought him on, though he looked unfit and out of shape. Núñez stunned the home crowd by scoring two brilliant goals from outside the penalty box, forcing the match into extra time. JDT went on to win the tie on penalties.

Those two eye catching goals from each of his foot had a lasting impact on football aficionados, let alone in a country where we savour our greasy mouth watering cuisines as passionately we enjoy the beautiful game; and because of his overweight physique and a visible belly, Núñez fans nicknamed him as ‘Pak Boroi’. Núñez would remain at JDT until the end of the year, scoring many memorable goals. While 2013 was considered a dismal year by JDT’s standard, the club was already making the necessary preparation that would usher an era of dominance and prosperity in the years to come.

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In September, they made a dashing announcement: the signing of Argentina’s former playmaker Pablo Aimar. This news sent a massive shockwave throughout Southeast Asia. I recall getting messages from fans of Argentina across the region while on a business trip. Though by now, Aimar was almost into his mid-30s, he had not lost any of the football brilliance that made him one of the finest midfielders of the 2000s. A player of his calibre would provide a huge boost for Southeast Asia’s football. Having played at JDT’s home ground during the 1997 Under 20 World Cup, this was perhaps a sort of homecoming for him.

But JDT were not done yet, in terms of making marquee signings. A couple of months later, they  concluded a deal with Aimar’s former national team colleague, Lucho Figueroa, who had stints at Rosario Central and Villarreal. Both Aimar and Lucho’s arrival signaled a couple of things. Firstly, JDT had made a strong intent to wrestle and subjugate Malaysian football. Secondly, off the pitch, this also had generated the most exciting football season in the domestic league. Fans have not witnessed a buildup that has aroused the public’s interest in such a magnitude ever since.

But things got off to a slow start. While Aimar had produced some magical moments which had got the crowd energised and on their feet, he was also plagued with injuries. Without him, JDT could not assert themselves at the forefront of the league due to inconsistency. There were also rumours that Aimar was not happy with the standard of Malaysian football, especially on the officiating, sighting reckless tackle and less protection of players like himself. In such adverse circumstances, JDT parting ways with him was imminent.

Aimar’s departure left a huge gap for JDT and a replacement was now needed more than ever. There were rumours that Nicolás Delmonte, who was then playing with JDT II, would be promoted to the first team. Even more enticing was that the club was linked with Manuel Lanzini following his departure from River Plate back then. Eventually, they settled for an attacker named Jorge Pereyra Díaz. Fresh from winning the Copa Sudamericana with Lanús, Díaz was the spark-plug that JDT sorely needed. His arrival triggered an unwavering rise for JDT to the top of the league standings. His goal ensured that JDT clinched their first Super League crown against Sarawak on the last day of the league’s fixture.

For winning the 2014 Super League title, JDT were awarded a place in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup the following year. Thus, they needed to make a strong reinforcement to their squad. Like the year before, results were not impressive. Reigning coach Bojan Hodak was relieved from his duty. In his place, JDT hired an Argentine coach who had a strange line of names and an aberrant character. His name was Roberto Carlos Mario Gomez.

Mario Gomez was previously an assistant to Héctor Cúper during his stint with Valencia and Internazionale. His pragmatic yet entertaining approach was something JDT needed if they intended to conquer both on the domestic and Asian front. Gomez manage to drill JDT into a cohesive oiled machine despite losing Jorge Pereyra Díaz. As a replacement, JDT brought in Patito Rodríguez on a season long loan from Brazilian side Santos. But Rodríguez’s time came to an end prematurely after being side-lined from injuries.

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Gomez had to rely upon the sole Argentine left in his squad for the remainder of the season. The 2015 season turned out to be the year in which Lucho Figueroa finally gained his own prominence as a footballer. Throughout his career, he was often overshadowed by his more notable teammates, as in the case with Aimar’s presence with JDT. Figueroa’s altruistic and benevolent attitude instantly made him a captivating figure among the JDT’s faithful. While Aimar may have taken the exit door due to the standard of play, Figueroa was more than willing to take extra efforts for the benefit of the team. Thanks to his goals and assists, JDT retained their league crown. JDT also had a historic run in the AFC Cup, going all the way to the final; albeit through the back door after their opponent in the semi-final Qadsia SC were thrown out from the competition.

In a bid to strengthen his team, Gomez decided to add Leandro Velázquez, who was then attached to JDT II. He certainly brought a divine presence for being the hero in Dushanbe. His solitary goal was enough to make history as JDT became the first Malaysian side to clinch a continental title. That also turned out to be his only appearance for JDT that year. Soon he was back with JDT II where he would remain until he left the team in 2016. But that was not the end of his love affair with JDT, as he made a triumphant return to play for them again this season.

Lucho Figueroa had decided that after the 2015 season, he would retire as a JDT legend. The good news was that Jorge Pereyra Díaz had returned from a loan stint with Independiente to the side for the 2016 season. Joining him from El Rojo was Juan Martín Lucero. Both Díaz and Lucero established a menacing partnership that season. Between them, they had fired 59 goals, which propelled JDT to another Super League. However, they were absent in the semi-final second leg against Bengaluru FC and it was clearly felt. Without them, JDT were humbled to a 3-1 loss, coming short of another place in the Final.

Though 2016 was not considered a bad year, neither Gomez, Díaz nor Lucero remained with the team for the following season. Lucero was sold to a Mexican club and Díaz’s exit was deemed controversial after a post on his Facebook page that claimed that he was treated poorly. Gomez was asked to step down, the reason being that JDT wanted a new tactical direction. That did not mean JDT were going to abandon their Argentine influences completely for the 2017 season. Three new players were added: Gonzalo Cabrera (on loan), Brian Ferreira and Jerónimo Barrales. However, neither Ferreira nor Barrales were impressive enough. Ferreira was shipped out immediately while Barrales was demoted to JDT II during the start of the season.

Instead of looking elsewhere, Gabriel Guerra was who initially signed for JDT II was promoted to the first team to replace Barrales. Guerra was showing plenty of promise for the feeder team side. He instantly struck a great partnership with Gonzalo Cabrera, scoring 39 goals between them. Clearly, the Argentine experiment was almost a guarantee as JDT swept the Super League title for the fourth consecutive season. They also added the Malaysia Cup to the trophy haul, cementing their status as the best football club in Malaysia in a space of 5 years.

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To prepare for the 2018 season, JDT made several surprising moves. They managed to retain Cabrera by signing him permanently. Jorge Pereyra Díaz also returned to the team despite his previously unhappy exit. The biggest news of them all was Lucho Figueroa coming out of retirement after being away for 2 years. Neither Díaz nor Lucho could recapture the magic from their previous stint with JDT. In Lucho’s case, he retired again halfway through the season and was later appointed as the team’s manager, a position he holds to this day, while Díaz’s exit was again a contentious one. To replace them, JDT went back to the Argentine catalogue and brought in Fernando Márquez and Fernando Elizari to bolster their campaign. Elizari proved to be an effective provider while Márquez and Cabrera kept raining in the goals. JDT retained their dominance in the Super League race but the season was somewhat disappointing following their premature exit from the AFC Cup group stage.

This year was expected to be a big year for JDT as they were about to embark on a historic campaign. For the first time, the winner of the MSL would be guaranteed a place in the AFC Champions League (AFCCL) group stage. At the beginning, Gonzalo Cabrera kept his place in the team partly due to his Iraqi passport and his consistency for the past few years. Both of the Fernandos, Elizari and Márquez, were released and the hero of Dushanbe, Velázquez, returned following his stint in Colombia and Mexico. Both Cabrera and Velázquez were instrumental in helping JDT to maintain their domestic supremacy and the club also had an impressive campaign in their AFC Champions League debut. They produced a decent run against some of the continent’s giants including a massive victory over the defending champions, Kashima Antlers.

One may wonder whether such a strong Argentine connection is a coincidence or could there be a rational explanation to this. The “Pablo Aimar” factor could certainly be included as one of them. While his chapter with JDT was a relatively short one, it did indirectly have a knock on effect back in Argentina. Fans back in Argentina closely followed his move to Malaysia. Even JDT’s results were published in the country’s leading football media such as Ole or Tyc Sports.

It gave many footballers in Argentina an offbeat choice in their pursuit for greener pastures abroad. In the past, many would have looked to Europe or other parts of Latin America as their preferred destination. With huge investments now being poured into football in this region, South East Asia has become a viable option. Aimar’s move is unquestionably the key which opened that door.

Of course, there is a flip side to all of this. Going for the cash in a country with little football reputation is a huge risk for any aspiring professional. The thought of employers not fulfilling their contractual obligation can never be ignored. This has repeatedly been the case even in the 21st century. Sadly, even Malaysia is no exception in this case. But for JDT this has never been the issue. They have followed the same pattern as Richard Branson’s famous concept: “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your customer.” In JDT’s case, it is all about “Pay your footballers on time and they will give everything on the field.” Simple as that. The club has fortified itself as a club with no such reputation of deferment in player’s wages, thus making it a reliable choice for footballers.

Another distinct factor is the brainchild behind JDT, the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail, otherwise known as TMJ. It is unclear whether His Royal Highness is an ardent fan of Argentina. But it is a question that has had many fans wondering for a long time. Back in 2014, His Royal Highness did pick La Albiceleste on television as one of his preferred teams to go all the way in the World Cup. That gave many fans a hint to where his allegiance lies. He is also an avid, well trained and qualified polo player. At JDT, he has established Johor Ellerstina, which is the polo team of Johor. Anyone with a high degree of knowledge on the subject will understand the spiritual relationship between the game and Argentina, a country that is adjudged to be the highest practitioner of the sport.

If there is a bigger persuasive factor when it comes to JDT’s connection to Argentina, then one individual stands out. He goes by the name of Martín Prest. A former footballer, Prest had a career span of more than a decade playing in Scotland for Dundee, Raith Rovers, Ross County and several years in the Spanish lower leagues. It is unclear when Prest actually arrived at the Malaysian football scene. Apart from His Highness, he too has been among the most ever present figures right from the beginning of JDT’s formation. Initially regarded as the figure behind the scene, the native Argentinian has developed himself comparatively over the years as the “Jorge Mendes of Malaysian football”.

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Prest has been instrumental in pulling off deals that led to bringing in quality additions to JDT’s roster. This is more evident when you look at the Argentine imports that have arrived at the club including the negotiation to bring in Pablo Aimar. When it comes to players signing, his adroitness in this field has consistently paid dividends for JDT.

At JDT, Prest has the role of the club’s sporting director but also somewhat as a football agent. He is by far His Highness’ undisputed advisor, especially when it comes to player transfers. It’s fair to say, as long as Martín Prest is around with JDT, the club will have an Argentine player donning its colours. As long as these Argentine footballers continue to deliver the goods, it is fair to say that JDT will certainly continue with this buoyant formula.

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