Five things South China fans should know about Johor and its people
Prince charming, state pride, bad drivers, ultra supporters and wild tigers
The Johor Darul Ta’zim are the latest version of a state team who have been part of the Malaysian football set-up for decades but who have only recently started to thrive.
The team are based in Johor Bahru, Malaysia’s second-largest city and often the playground of Singaporeans who need only to cross the Causeway to find cheaper petrol, groceries and entertainment.
JDT have some of the most die-hard football supporters in the country and their presence can be intimidating, as Hong Kong’s Kitchee found out in a 2-0 loss at the Larkin Stadium during the group stage of the AFC Cup.
South China will now enter the Tigers' lair and try to become the first team to beat JDT on their own patch in 16 games. Here are five facts about Johor and Johoreans that South China players and fans may want to absorb ahead of the first leg match on Tuesday.
1. PRINCELY PATRIARCH
Heir to the Johor sultanate, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim has emerged as a folk hero in the state for his political views and sporting leadership. It is unusual for Malaysian royalty to become involved in politics but the Prince has won over many compatriots even outside the state for the way he has openly tussled with high-profile government figures. Recently, after being challenged by a top minister, the prince put out a video in which he simply looked into the camera and gestured “come on” to his opponent without saying a word. The clip went viral and he won over many fans. Football-wise, the prince has played a key role in JDT’s rise. He took over as Johor Football Association head a few years ago and unified a fractured organisation. He brought in top local and overseas players and the crowds returned in their thousands. He recently resigned as JFA chief but his legacy is already entrenched and JDT are Malaysian champions.
2. STATE PRIDE
Johoreans exhibit almost nationalistic fervour when it comes to pride in their state, more so than the inhabitants of Malaysia’s 13 other states. While recognising themselves as Malaysians, they show even greater pride in being Johoreans. Hongkongers may harbour similar feelings with regards to Hong Kong and its relationship with the mainland. Sheikh Fairul, the official photographer for the JDT team and proud Johorean, says: “We are the only state in ‘Mesia’ that has a single Johor race, whether we are Malays, Chinese or Indians.” There certainly is pride in the “J”.
3. DRIVING THEM CRAZY
There is also fear in the “J” for people outside the state. It’s the first of three letters on car licence plates indicating the vehicle is from Johor. A Penang native asks: “When you see a car with a ‘J’ on it, what do you think?” What he means is their propensity for wild driving. Non-Johoreans will say Johoreans are infamous for tail-gating, careless overtaking, speeding, road rage and various other stunts that make the highways unsafe. Johoreans, of course, deny this and point the finger at Singaporeans, who often drive across the border so they can engage fifth gear more often. “The Singaporeans, they don’t know how to drive,” says one Johorean.
4. WE ARE THE ULTRAS
We’ve already said that Johoreans are intensely proud of their state and this naturally translates to their football team. The Ultras are a hardcore group of JDT supporters, numbering in their thousands, who occupy a corner of the Larkin Stadium, turn up to every match and make lots of noise for 90 minutes. They even attend JDT’s reserve and junior teams. However, they are keen to separate themselves from the notorious and often violent Ultras of Italian side Roma. Says Sheikh: “In Rome, the Ultras ARE hooligans. In Johor, there are the Ultras AND the hooligans. But the hooligans are now no more, they've been disbanded. But the Ultras are still there. It's a sight to behold.”
5. WILD TIGERS
JDT are known as the Southern Tigers. And unlike many teams named after animals who are nowhere in the vicinity of their home ground, Johor actually is home to the Malayan tiger. A survey completed at the end of 2014 put the number of wild tigers in Johor at between 240-340. In the 1950s, Malaysia boasted around 5,000 tigers who roamed their forests. Conservationists are gravely concerned about the future of the species, which is being threatened by deforestation and poaching. A recovery programme is geared towards raising the population in Malaysia to 1,000 by the end of 2020. Last week, scientists deemed the hairy rhino extinct in Malaysia. If the same thing happens to the Malayan tiger, then the JDT football team may be the only ones left in the peninsula.