Spain versus Russia, the Euro 2008 semi finals. Russia piece together an attack, bringing the ball deep into Spanish territory. Winning back possession, La Furia launch a counter attack of their own and within a few passes the ball finds Dani Güiza on the right hand side of the pitch. Passing the ball back to the supporting Sergio Ramos, Güiza makes a slithering through the Russian defence, catching Cesc Fabregas’s perfect lob on his chest, before flicking the ball over the oncoming Igor Akinfeev.
Dani Güiza may have been replaying that moment in his head when he was unveiled earlier this season as one of Johur Darul Takzim FC’s designated foreign players in the Malaysian Super League. “It took a lot of effort for me to come here, and I hope that it is a good sign,” he said diplomatically upon his unveiling as the marquee loan signing at the upmarket Thistle Hotel in Johor Bahru. The diplomacy was not misplaced; it had taken a royal effort to bring him to the South East Asian nation. Malaysia is not the destination of choice for winners of European Championships seeing out their careers, certainly not when they’re still at the fairly young age of 32.
Malaysian football had been suffering from a dearth of personalities who could uplift the game. Allegations of match fixing are never far away from any result, crowd trouble at some matches is also discouraging – something that appears to be on the rise – so the move for such a prominent name was big news.
Following the European Championships in 2008, Güiza followed the Spain manager Luis Aragones to Turkey and signed for Fenerbache. However, though the grass was initially green on that side of the Bosphorus, the goals dried up quickly, with Güiza scoring less in three years at Fenerbahçe than he had for Mallorca in his final season. Off the pitch, problems with his wife, which led to her leaving for Spain with their son in tow, did not help, especially when she is also his agent. Malaysia, then, could prove to be a nice and safe enough country and league where the focus would be more on what happened on the pitch rather than off it.
The Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Idris Sultan Ibrahim, was in the process of building a super team, one that has commonly been rebranded as the Manchester City or the Real Madrid of the Malaysian football scene. Such developments may appear to be alien to observers from more established leagues and football nations, but, reflecting general society as a whole, very little is done in Malaysia unless you have someone of a certain standing pulling the strings.
And the Crown Prince of Johor is a man with his hands on many strings. Not limiting himself to the crown jewel that is Güiza, he had previously taken over both Johor FA and Johor FC, two teams who had plodded along with little significant impact in Malaysian football history. Johor FC became Johor Darul Takzim FC, a take from the state motto ‘Darul Takzim’, which means Abode of Dignity. The team itself would soon be the abode of half the Malaysian national team, including the national team captain Safiq Rahim, a useful conductor in the middle of the park, and Safee Sali, who was plying his trade in Indonesia as Malaysia’s first millionaire footballer. Simply put: this team was not put together on the cheap.
However, there is still room for that one blockbuster signing that would gazump the rest of the league and make not just the nation, but the football world, take notice. Such trends are not entirely new in Malaysia, for it is a similar wave of ambition that brought the likes of George Boateng and Caleb Folan to these shores recently. The English Premier League reigns supreme here, but interest in Spanish teams has been on the up since their stranglehold on international football began five years ago (it was telling that Güiza himself was reported by many Malaysian media outlets as being a former Barcelona striker, when he had only turned out for the B team on loan).
Güiza was a key contributor to that European victory, his goals helping Spain along to their first meaningful international title in almost half a century. Along with the arrival of Simone Del Nero, an Italian Cup winner from Lazio, Darul Takzim FC marked themselves as the team to watch. Turning down other ‘royal’ teams like Zaragoza also helped to add value to the allure of seeing this champion in action, and see them they did, with home attendances at the Larkin Stadium reaching near its capacity of 30,000 on numerous occasions. On paper, the team seemed unbeatable.
On the pitch, though, question marks arose over the balance of the side. In addition to the foreigners, Malaysia’s other national team striker, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, was acrimoniously poached from the treble winners Kelantan. The coach, Fandi Ahmad, a legendary Singaporean striker who spent time in the Dutch league early in his career, may have had an affinity with his attackers, but three expensively accrued specialist strikers into 4-3-3 (or two, as he is sometimes wont to play with two up front) does not always go.
Interestingly, it was Dani who was initially told to sit out, being introduced slowly to allow him a better chance of acclimatising himself within the team. When he did acclimatise, his sheer class shone through. His first goal, a 30-yard free kick that flew into the top corner, brought Darul Takzim level when they were trailing against the champions Kelantan at home. A coolly-slotted 86th minute goal made the 3-1 scoreline against PKNS that bit more comfortable too. A turn and a shot against Kedah, from the outside of the box, as well as a free kick in stoppage time, saved his team from defeat, having been 2-0 down before Güiza’s intervention.
It was not all about Güiza’s goalscoring prowess though. In the aforementioned match against PKNS, he curled in a first time cross, which was headed into the goal by Sali. Again, in the match against Pahang, Güiza whipped in a vicious cross when nothing appeared to be on, a cross Rahim headed right into the bottom corner of the net. In the same match, a slide rule pass helped to slice open the defence, an opportunity Talaha did not fail to convert.
The 2-0 lead, however, was squandered as Güiza’s side lost 3-2, which encapsulated his stay here in Malaysia. Though he would provide the goals, the defence would prove to be less than reliable, rendering his own efforts somewhat meaningless within the bigger and more objective scheme of things. A free kick against Kedah was comfortably stroked into the bottom corner, but that counted for nothing in a 1-2 defeat. Many of his strikes had been levellers, while there were matches in which he seemed disinterested; a double against Terengganu was not celebrated, which many interpreted as a sign of impending doom.
Not that anyone considered the possibility of him leaving so early, but rumours ran rampant near the end of March that Güiza’s stay in Johor would be cut short. He, along with Del Nero, was suddenly considered too expensive to retain. Del Nero’s impact had been limited; a loss of form not aided by recurring injuries which denied him the opportunity to truly show what he is capable of. But Güiza? Güiza’s was the leader everyone had been following, the man who had sold out stadiums and put Malaysian football back on the back page of Malaysian newspapers. In an era when that has usually been the honour of teams from the English Premier League, that says something.
It did not help that Tunku Ismail Idris himself was banned by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) for six months due to improprieties in football dealings. In a footballing context, whenever the man bringing you in is turned out, it does not bode well for you. The same applied here, and other problems, which may have been of a more personal nature, may also apply to Güiza.
Nobody expected it to last forever, but the termination of Dani Güiza’s loan from Getafe before it was supposed to end perplexed many observers of Malaysian football; if it was indeed true that the reason Güiza was being let go was because his own contract with Getafe would end in August, and thus make him ineligible to be selected for the Malaysian Cup (played in the latter part of the year), then what was the purpose of signing him? If it was indeed to make a splash, then it was an expensive one; though the true value of the deal was not revealed, the prince had strongly hinted it was higher than €1.6 million, which was what he stated as the market value for Güiza. That works out at over RM6.5 million, or over RM800,000 for each of the eight goals he had scored up until then (and this discounts his supposed RM100,000 a week wages). It helps to illuminate something, then, that names such as Nicolas Anelka, David Trezeguet, Milan Baros and Louis Saha were thrown around as potential replacements before the little-known Brazilian Andrezinho, a journeyman striker signed from Johor FA, was tasked with leading the line.
By Fikri Jermadi
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona