Corporate Malaysia's football loyalists on what to expect in the 2023 English Premier League

As the new season kicks off, five fans share their passion for the game and the team they are rooting for.

From top left: Northport Malaysia CEO Datuk Azman Shah Mohd Yusof, Microsoft Malaysia managing director K Raman, DRB-Hicom head of group strategic communications Mahmood Razak Bahman, Go Communications founder and CEO Peter de Kretser and Mitraland Group chairman Datuk Johan Ariffin (All photos: Soo Phye)

Summertime means the living is easy. But that’s only according to Gershwin. For football fans the world over, it is hard graft without something to look forward to on Saturday nights. Now that August (and autumn) have rolled in and the new football season can finally get underway, fans, supporters and not-quite-countrymen gear up for a long, intense and furiously competitive season where talent, good management and a hefty war chest are the name of the game.



Who: K Raman, managing director, Microsoft Malaysia

Supporter since: 1980

Why: Honestly, it was probably because Liverpool was the ultimate winning team then. I mean, it was the era of Kenny Dalglish and Steve Heighway, a time when its defence was solid and we had such exciting players. Besides Dalglish, who managed the club from 1985 to 1991, you only have to mention names like Kevin Keegan and Ian Rush to know what we were like then. Personally, I’ve been to Anfield five times, of which three were for live games. The first visit was in 2018 when we beat Huddersfield 5-0. Besides being my first outing to the Kop, one of football’s most passionate, atmospheric and raucous Ends, it was also my first trip to Liverpool.

The most memorable moment though had to be in November 2019 when we beat Manchester City 3-1, although winning the Club World Cup in Doha, also in 2019, piping Flamengo with an extra-time goal from Roberto Firmino, comes pretty close. I have to say though, once you’ve been to the Kop and sung your heart out to You’ll Never Walk Alone as the players come on, you really do feel physically what it means to support Liverpool. And I say this as someone who also has been to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. There is a big difference in terms of the energy and sense of team spirit.

Who to watch: My money will be on Alisson [Becker], who is really the most reliable goalkeeper ever. You can’t deny how good he is, ever since joining Liverpool in 2018. [Mo] Salah is a tremendous goal-scorer, but he has set the bar so high. In my opinion, Liverpool’s three most senior players — Alisson, Salah and Virgil van Dijk — all have equal right to be captain. I hope whoever takes on the role places the team above personal glory.

What to expect: [Jürgen] Klopp started off with a bang and we really enjoyed five to six good years with him. He brought in a strong sense of leadership but, sadly, the team has suffered a spate of injuries. Liverpool has traditionally set the standards. The upcoming season is going to be tough and it will be a year of change, what with the old and the new happening all at once. First, there was the news of losing [Jordan] Henderson and Fabinho but then we received a new midfield engine in the form of Trent [Alexander-Arnold]. Along with signings like Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, it will be an interesting transition.

If it were left up to me, I’d cast my eye on some Arsenal muscle to boost the team. I would imagine [Arsenal defensive midfielder] Declan Rice to make up a great trio in the middle of the field while [French national footballer and Arsenal centre back] William Saliba would be great for the defence. But so far, everyone we’ve got on the team seems to be gelling together well and the big engine room is where the transition happens fast.

We definitely should aim for a Top 3 finish this season, what more not being part of the UEFA Champions League this year. Liverpool should focus on Premier League glory as our top priority. The players will be hungry after a disappointing 2022/23 season. The team, the club, owe it to themselves and, more importantly, the fans! My hall’s 65-inch television is at the ready for the new season and I will usually gather some friends so we can watch the matches together. As for family, only one of my two daughters will sit through a match with me. My wife is not a fan of the game and my other girl is not interested at all. As for my son, he is a [Manchester] United supporter. What I can say … it’s sinful! However, I will consider taking him to Anfield one day to try and convert him.



Who: Datuk Johan Ariffin, chairman, Mitraland Group

Supporter since: I’ve been a Gooner since the late 1960s, during the time of Bob Wilson, Charlie George and Frank McLintock. But I’d better say no more lest I give my age away.

Why: Football is such a fascinating game, isn’t it? I mean, where else do you have 22 fellows all rushing after one ball? I personally have no recollection how and why I ended up supporting Arsenal but maybe it was because I liked the cannon logo? I do remember watching them on the telly a lot when I was young. And mind you, televisions were still in black and white at that time. And it wasn’t even the English Premier League back then but the Football League. I just had this affinity for Arsenal and it grew steadily from there.

I grew up in Penang, having studied first at St Xavier’s before Penang Free School, and I would always dash to the Indian bookshop around the corner to get my hands on a football magazine called Shoot, together with the requisite Beano and Dandy comics. Somehow I never managed to make it to Highbury, although I have visited the new Emirates Stadium several times. My first-ever live Arsenal match was a disappointing one. It was a home game and a friend and I couldn’t score tickets. Instead, we paid an obscene amount of money to a scalper for what I’d call ‘high altitude’ seats. And all that for a draw.

Who to watch: As for favourite players, who doesn’t like [Bukayo] Saka? He’s so young, talented and fast, and most importantly, has overcome his failure to take the English team’s fifth penalty during the Euro 2020 final against Italy and risen above all the horrific racist abuse, which is simply fantastic. You also can’t leave out our goalie, Aaron Ramsdale, who has been one of the club’s best investments ever and well worth his weight in gold. I also definitely make it a point to watch all the games when the season is on, although I’m not one of those who’d stay up till 3am or 4am … I like football but I am not fanatical.

What to expect: Well, you know what everybody likes to say … how ‘we are cautiously optimistic’ but one can always hope. When [Mikel] Arteta came back to Arsenal as head coach, he was an unknown entity. Sure, he was celebrated as a very committed player and had served as captain, even winning two FA Cups while he was at it. But as manager? We weren’t so sure. Arsenal fans are known to be impatient. After all, we’ve been waiting so long [for a major win]. Not having won the league since the era of ‘The Invincibles’ in 2003/04 and then years of disappointment ensuing, I like to joke that being an Arsenal fan builds character!

Arteta wasn’t in charge of [Manchester] City then but he was assisting Pep Guardiola, so I suppose he’s picked up a lot in terms of coaching methods. I like to think he has his own style and, also, this season is about the newbies and it is imperative that the newcomers click as fast as possible — people like Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and Jurrien Timber. I hope they find their fit relatively quickly and adapt to how Arteta wants them to play.

It really is crucial the coach picks the right team for the right opponent. Last season, I’d say we didn’t have a deep enough bench to take us through all 38 games, despite having a lighter load than, say, City or Liverpool. We just ran out of legs in the last two months. Perhaps with a few new purchases to strengthen the midfield, maybe adding another striker … who knows? Then maybe this time we’d really be up for it. I also like to say how it takes men of really strong character to be — and remain — Arsenal fans. To endure the misery heaped upon us season after season, you’d need to be a true Gooner. But yes, a new season is finally upon us. As the politicians in Malaysia like to say, ‘Begitulah harapan kami’.



Who: Peter de Kretser, founder and CEO, Go Communications

Supporter since: Since 1992 when I was 10 years old. I grew up in a cricketing family, to be honest. Being good Aussies, my old man was a pretty dashing cricket player. In his youth, he played state-level cricket for Canberra while my grandfather played for Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known then, where he opened the batting. You can still see his credits on the plaques today at the Ceylon Sports Club in Colombo.

As I was born in Singapore, where there was no Aussie Rules or rugby to play, football was the next best thing. So while dad was playing cricket, I was kicking a ball around with the other kids and eventually got into a junior programme. I even had the opportunity to attend the Bobby Charlton Academy when I was 12 years old, flying all the way there on my own. My own footballing career was very brief. I signed on for a team called the Melbourne Knights, which rebranded itself as Melbourne Victory later, as well as Tanjong Pagar for Singapore, where I played right wing and up front as a striker.

I would have pursued a professional career as a footballer had it not been for an unfortunate incident where I completely wrecked my anterior cruciate ligament. It’s a common injury but I didn’t have the same gusto or lateral movement after that. Even now, I still feel a pinch whenever I golf! As for supporting Manchester United, it was due to my neighbour. He was a Mancunian and lived in the same condo. We both went to United World College but he was a few years older than me. We’d kick balls in the car park and he was like a big brother to me. So, as I still hadn’t picked a club to support, he went all out to indoctrinate me. It marked the beginning of the friendly competition, between me and my dad, who preferred Arsenal, on practically everything in life thereafter.

Why: Come see my stash of stuff and you’d know why. I have old jerseys that date back decades, sticker books from my childhood, a signed and framed Carlos Tevez jersey … I have a fair bit of stuff. I’ve also been to Old Trafford on four occasions over the years but the best was probably the first time while attending the Bobby Charlton Academy.

We got to see the pre-season friendlies and even met Eric Cantona on another occasion. Bobby Charlton came to visit regularly, of course, and we met Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe too. But I will never forget one match when United were playing Sporting Lisbon and the fans were just screaming ‘Ooh Aah Cantona’. It was a chant which cast a spell as it rang throughout the stadium. As a young man, hearing that was pretty powerful stuff. As for my favourite player of all time, it has to be Paul Scholes. He’s arguably one of the most underrated footballers ever. And if you’ve seen him in action, you have to admit he has a great first touch and utter control of the ball.

Who to watch: A lot of us are placing huge store by our manager, Erik ten Hag. He’s done a striking job in his first year, leading us to third place and ending our six-year trophy drought with the EFL Cup. As for the players, it is certainly not the calibre of what we had back in the day but there are some promising kids coming through. Obviously our newly appointed captain Bruno Fernandes is a very, very talented player and I kind of like centre back Lisandro Martínez, who proved all the doubters wrong. We recently signed Mason Mount from Chelsea who, again, is very promising. It would be down to these three players to look out for, honestly.

What to expect: It’s probably the Man Utd-Liverpool rivalry that is traditionally always harped on about, so those are the ultimate matches to watch, obviously. I will give Liverpool credit where it’s due, though — they have the best anthem ever. You’ll Never Walk Alone is just so hauntingly beautiful, especially when you hear it live in the stadium, which I have. Hearing the fans sing that gives you goosebumps. Even if you aren’t a Liverpool supporter, you can’t help but be moved. You’re not human — or outright lying — if you aren’t. But yeah, their anthem is probably the only thing I like about them.



Who: Mahmood Razak Bahman, head of group strategic communications, DRB-Hicom

Supporter since: My parents met and married in London, so I’ve felt a sense of emotional affiliation with England, not least its football league, ever since I’ve known that fact. My father actually studied in Birmingham but I managed to convert him into being a Spurs fan before he passed away. I’ve always liked things that are slightly odd and, while looking for a club to support, I liked how Tottenham Hotspur sounded different, special. It was only much later that I discovered it draws its name from the legendary Harry Hotspur, a famous English knight who fought the Scots along England’s northern border as well as the French in the Hundred Years’ War, and is one of the best-known characters in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

I’ve been a Spurs supporter since the mid-1970s when they were actually relegated. But Glenn Hoddle had just joined them and was a big deal then. The funny thing about this period of time was that Spurs got demoted but then were quickly reinstated – with the same manager and largely the same team! My two kids are Liverpool fans. I’d put it down to the influence of their stepdad. But I am just happy they are supporting a club other than mine for two main reasons: one, so we can all talk football together and two, they won’t suffer as much as I have.

Why: Being a Spurs fan is all about being hopeful. We have not won a thing since the 1980s. The last trophy was in 2008, when they won the League Cup, but that’s more than 5,455 days ago. Still, at least we have nostalgia and history to fall back on. Tottenham is, after all, the first English team to win a European Championship [the 1963 European Cup Winners’ Cup where Spurs beat Atletico Madrid 5-1] and the first non-league team to win the FA Cup. We had some good times. And pre-Covid, I’d go to White Hart Lane at least three times a year.

I have been known to do crazy things like fly to the UK on a Friday, watch the game on Saturday and fly back on Sunday. It sounds mad but it’s also good as it’s too short to get jet lag. I took my then wife to watch Spurs beat Newcastle 2-1 on our honeymoon in February 2013. The next time you are at a Spurs game, you will also notice the song Can’t Smile Without You by Barry Manilow being played. I don’t know why they do that but I heard the coach used to play it on away trips during the 1970s.

Who to watch: We need a new generation of players to come in and support us with much-needed horsepower. Of course, everyone’s talking about Harry Kane coming or going right now, but many of us Malaysian Spurs fans would be happy to let him go, really. He’s been a successful player for us, top scorer for the club and second top scorer for England now, but he has never lifted a Cup. Kane deserves his shot at team glory, so letting him go with the possibility of big wins … that’s love! He has been such a loyal servant to Spurs and everyone would wish him all the best even if he did go. He will always be a club legend.

What to expect: Right now, not much. What we ultimately need is a big war chest and a few good players to rectify our defence being so out of whack. We also need an owner who will invest in the club. Daniel Levy [managing director of ENIC International] has enough money to build a big, new stadium but what we need are wins. We, the fans, don’t just want Tottenham Hotspur to be a big, profitable business or be rented out for concerts. We need an owner who is passionate about Spurs. Our previous chairman, Alan Sugar, had football in his blood! Levy is a shrewd businessman, I’ll give him that. But my sentiment echoes the fans who had ‘Levy Out’ balloons and stickers all over the place the last time I was there. The owners are killing the club with their stinginess and pointless transfers.



Who: Datuk Azman Shah Mohd Yusof, CEO, Northport Malaysia

Supporter since: My football fandom history started in 1982, when I saw a travesty of justice while watching the World Cup semi-finals between France and Germany. The German goalkeeper knocked out a French player who was on his way to score a goal and got away with it. From then on, I supported the French national team but I was club-less until 1998. During a chat with friends [about the English league], they told me it was time to pick a side and having always had a penchant for the underdogs, I chose Chelsea.

Why: They played good football but hadn’t won for the longest time and were in financial trouble. And so it began, between 1998 and 2004, my years of not having the best of Mondays because the team would lose and I would have to bear the brunt of it. When I became a Chelsea fan, the right ingredients were there — they had good players like [Gianfranco] Zola and [Gianluca] Vialli but were not consistent. Then came Roman Abramovich, who changed the whole game. One very happy memory was winning the Champions League for the first time in 2012 when [Didier] Drogba saved the match by equalising in the 88th minute before the penalty shoot-out that sealed the deal for Chelsea. To have a winning team, you need funding, a good central spine and players on the field who are natural leaders — like Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard. Sadly, we don’t see that kind of synergy any more.

I last visited Stamford Bridge in 2019 with my wife when Lampard became the manager. The atmosphere was great because you’re welcoming a hero of the club who’s coming back as manager. Sadly, we lost to Liverpool. The feeling of watching your team play is always great, be it at the stadium or at viewing parties here, usually at the old Modesto’s in Desa Sri Hartamas. In old newspaper clippings, you can see me with Blues chief executive Ron Gourlay and other fans when Chelsea came to Malaysia in June 2011. We also launched the Chelsea Blue Pitch project to get people to start playing at the grassroots level. It was a fun meet and greet, everyone was decked out in blue and I got a picture with Hazard.

Who to watch: There’s still some uncertainty on who’s in and who’s out but the mentality is that they’re building a solid young team. They already have a good coach in Mauricio Pochettino but how do we live up to the past performance under
[José] Maurinho when everybody knew what to do and were vital cogs in the machine? The new team have to deliver the goods on the field and click, and step up for each other. From last season, I like Enzo Fernandez and he could be the next leader of the team but I don’t want him to be overloaded. I also like [Christopher] Nkunku. If they get Moisés Caicedo, I will be happy. But even if they don’t, they can get some other young players who can complement Fernandez. I hope Thiago Silva can last another season because the team needs his mentorship and it is also my wish that Reece James can stay fit.

What to expect: I think Manchester City is still going to be in the top three but the question is, who can mount the challenge against them? With Pochettino, they can play more of the attacking style instead of square passes and there’s more emphasis on speed. I am hopeful to be in the Top 4 but if they can get back into the Champions League, it will be better. Until today, we don’t know who will be captain and it’s important for Pochettino to take control of the dressing room and figure out who’s going to lead on the field. When you have a bunch of superstars on a team, their egos can sometimes get the better of them and they forget they are playing for the club.

I always believe that sports bring people together. There will be clubs and rivalry but it’s amazing the friends you can make, even in the corporate world, because of your love for the sport. I’ve had successful turnaround of conversations by diverting to footie talk when I notice, say, a piece of team memorabilia in the meeting room. It is a good way to unite, a good conversation piece and, sometimes, a distraction from issues. Looking at how football is being managed, it gives me pointers on how to manage a team too. Watching a game provides ample opportunities to learn various management skills by observing how managers handle their clubs and the synergy between the players. It is really another avenue of learning and, to me, it goes way beyond winning or losing a game.


This article first appeared on Aug 7, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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