Resuming or not, threat of legal suits clouds M-League

The fate of the football industry in Malaysia hinges on just one factor – whether the M-League will resume later this year. But it is a daunting decision – one that could open the floodgates for legal suits.

Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, had in his briefing today, stressed there would be no football activities – barely 24 hours after the FA of Malaysia (FAM) issued a statement stating the national body had requested advice from the National Security Council (NSC) and Health Ministry about the standard operating procedure should the leagues resume.

While the regulations of what can or cannot be done are clear throughout the Movement Control Order (MCO), Ismail Sabri added that a post-MCO standard operating procedure is being drafted by the NSC.

And here is where the guardians of football see a glimmer of hope.

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted football leagues worldwide, but for a handful of nations that seem to be either ignorant or immune to the pandemic.

The M-League – comprising the Super League, Premier League, FA Cup, Malaysia Cup, Youth Cup, President’s Cup, M3 and M4 and Malaysia Premier Futsal League – has been put on hold since March 16, two days before the Movement Control Order (MCO) kicked in.

The domino effect is seen at the lower levels – the state leagues and other smaller competitions. In such unprecedented times, it is almost impossible to decide if the domestic leagues can proceed.

There are those who are banking on the league to resume in July or August given the promising situation in controlling Covid-19 in Malaysia.

However, here is where legal issues may come into play. If football resumes, what assurances do the guardians have that the footballers and officials are free from Covid-19 and will not get it during competition? Getting the players and officials to declare their health status alone before every match is insufficient because some may not exhibit signs of having Covid-19 in the early days.

The Health Ministry is facing a shortage of manpower with those from other states roped in to beef up the numbers in various hospitals and hotspots in Kuala Lumpur. It remains to be seen if the ministry will be able to stretch its resources for football matches.

If football can do it, other sports would also demand the same – further causing a strain on the frontliners.

As I said on Astro Arena yesterday, who will be held responsible should Covid-19 infect players a football match? Also footballers are free to initiate legal action if they were to fall sick during play.

The stakeholders, however, may find this far-fetched as in reality, legal threats in Malaysia seem to be confined to between officials and journalists.

Most footballers, often under-represented or ignorant, are unclear of the terms stated in their contracts.

Is ‘force majeure‘ – a basic and common clause that touches on unforeseeable circumstances that prevent the fulfillment of an agreement – reflected in the contracts of the footballers and officials?

The Indonesian FA declared March and June as force majeure and clubs there are permitted to pay a maximum of only 25 per cent of the players’ salary as stipulated in their contracts.

Vague contracts will allow employers to easily dump their athletes and officials. The victims could initiate legal action but it remains to be seen if the judgment is in their favour.

If the leagues were to go on, visiting teams will need to stay in Covid-19-free hotels and inns. Disinfection must be carried out and that would mean more money and manpower.

Funding is a huge problem, especially for state FAs which have been relying on state governments for the longest time. With state governments introducing stimulus packages to boost the local economy and battle Covid-19, money meant for football will now be heavily slashed.

East coast teams, for example, enjoy hundreds of thousands if not millions of ringgit in gate collection and playing behind closed doors will kill their only other revenue stream.

However, the possibility of continuing the M-League albeit a reduced number of tournaments gives those within the fraternity hope.

This would mean the 3,000-odd footballers, officials and non-technical staff who are part of the M-League will be able to make ends meet while FAM, MFL and the state FAs can renegotiate terms with their corporate sponsors and broadcasters instead of settling matters in court.

Just like the recent stimulus packages announced by the federal government, FAM could do the same for its affiliates to ensure the industry remains alive.

This will also give hope to individuals and entities that are part of the sporting ecosystem in Malaysia. FIFA is expected to release operations funds for 2019 and 2020 to its 211 member associations soon, as part of its Covid-19 relief plan. That would mean FAM getting US$500,000 which could be then distributed to its affiliates and bolster the 2021 season.

It is clear fans will not be anywhere near the stadiums. Now, it is about the welfare of footballers, ensuring football remains alive and minimising potential legal issues while keeping Malaysia safe.