A wealthy prince and a shrewd promotion involving American rapper Snoop Dogg helped turn Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim from football minnows to one of Asia’s top clubs.
The club, commonly referred to as JDT, has its roots in the former Johor FC and other southern state clubs, which played in the lowlands of Malaysian football with the occasional minor cup win as their only honours.
But that all started to change in 2012 when Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, Crown Prince of Johor’s royal family, took control of football in the state.
With their new nickname of “Southern Tigers”, JDT has dominated Malaysian football since 2014, winning the country’s top-flight Super League in each of the last eight seasons.
In April, they became the first Malaysian team to reach the knockout stages of the Asian Football Confederation Champions League.
Now, the club from the sleepy country of 32 million will take on continental giants and two-time Asian champions Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in August for a place in the last eight.
“It’s the harvest of a seed that was planted 10 years ago, with a lot of effort,” JDT head coach Benjamin Mora told AFP at the club’s training center in Johor Bahru, the state capital.
“We are a very small team compared to the Asian giants,” said the Mexican manager, but added that JDT’s “fighting spirit” made them serious contenders.
When Tunku Ismail became president of the Johor Football Association, just north of the city-state of Singapore, his state team was average at best.
He carried out a major organizational overhaul, modernizing stadiums and bringing in top players and foreign staff.
The team was rebranded in 2013 as Johor Darul Ta’zim – the last two words mean “abode of dignity” in Arabic, an official honorary title for the Muslim-majority state of Malaysia.
Tunku Ismail, the eldest son of powerful Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, established the club in 2013 before being announced as its owner in 2016.
Her father, the Sultan, heads one of Malaysia’s nine Islamic royal families and, despite being a ceremonial ruler, wields considerable influence.
He’s a flamboyant figure – he has his own private army and has built a house inspired by his favorite cartoon, The Flintstones.
– Tough fight ahead –
Mora – who started with JDT’s reserve team in 2015, before becoming main team coach in 2017 – said the crown prince’s hands-on approach has helped the team.
For most owners, “their priorities are not the game (but) the industry” and the relationships they can build, he said.
But Tunku Ismail is “all in”, and is interested in everything, “the merchandise… foreign players, local players, staff, training”, added Mora.
The revitalized side won the Super League in 2014, and the following year became the first Malaysian team to win the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier continental club tournament, beating Tajikistan’s Istiklol 1-0.
In an effort to boost their profile, JDT recently tapped Snoop Dogg to perform a rap titled “Pioneers,” alongside Malaysian hip-hop artist Joe Flizzow.
The colorful music video features scenes of players, supporters waving flags and fireworks exploding over their state-of-the-art 40,000-seat Sultan Ibrahim Stadium, which was opened in 2020.
Defender Mohamad Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, who has been with the club since 2013, said access to new equipment, such as oxygen therapy machines and infrared saunas, made a big difference.
“I haven’t seen other teams in Malaysia have what JDT has,” said the 34-year-old.
JDT players now form the bulk of the national team, with 13 of them in the 23-man roster during the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers in June.
However, it remains to be seen if they can make a difference to the poor performance of the national team, which is only ranked 147th in the world.
Despite their rapid rise, JDT will face an uphill battle against top Asian sides in the Champions League Round of 16 in August after being drawn against Japan’s Urawa Reds.
“It will be almost impossible because the Japanese and Korean teams are very strong,” Mora said.
JDT will have to play “almost perfect games, without faults”, he added.