Snoop Dogg and former Wolves midfielder – meet Malaysia’s ‘Invincible’ Johor Darul Ta’zim

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Image caption, Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim on the brink of achieving quadruple crown for the second consecutive year

Arsenal’s 2003-04 “Invincibles” have gone down in footballing lore for a good reason: going unbeaten in the league takes a lot of effort.

But it can be argued that Malaysian wonders Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) have surpassed Arsenal’s record, having gone unbeaten by their domestic rivals last season and winning every competition in Malaysia this term, on the verge of a historic second consecutive quadruple.

They are coming off a staggering 10 consecutive years of dominating the Malaysian Super League, the Southeast Asian country’s top league. With one game remaining, what are the stats? 25 games, 24 wins, 1 draw, and a goal difference of plus 85.

Their path to a domestic quadruple includes Friday’s Malaysia Cup final against Terengganu and their final league match against Penang.

One of the key players in this cosmopolitan, unbeatable squad grew up in Croydon. “It’s been a pretty crazy journey,” said 23-year-old defensive midfielder Hong Wang.

Born in south London to a football-loving Chinese father and Malaysian mother, Hong came through the youth ranks at Charlton Athletic and Yeovil Town before turning professional at Wolves in 2019. However, apart from one appearance in the EFL Trophy, he never got a chance to play for the first team at Wolves.

In the winter of 2020, an email from JDT arrived in his inbox, asking if he would be interested in traveling. “I didn’t know much about Malaysian football, but I just knew that Johor was a team that would win anything,” Hong said.

For the youngster, the different experience it offered was more appealing than the possibility of dropping down the English league on loan. “Football is a funny game and you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s probably the best decision I’ve made,” he says.

“State-of-the-art equipment and a theme song rapped by Snoop Dogg.”

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Image caption, Hong Wan failed to achieve sustained success at Wolves

When Hong arrived in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru in the summer of 2021, he was shocked by the high humidity. “It’s the worst place to play football,” he said. “But you get used to it. I actually miss the cold weather in England. I can’t wait to get back home in the off-season and enjoy it.”

There are also stray monkeys and “the odd snake everywhere”, something Hong didn’t encounter when he was in Wolverhampton, as the monsoon season, which runs from November to March, means matches are sometimes cancelled.

Hong was immediately impressed with the capabilities demonstrated at JDT.

“When you’re in England, you feel like you have no idea what the level is like elsewhere. I had to adapt quickly. I couldn’t just walk in and ease in,” he said. “Malaysian football is really good, especially Johor. I’m amazed at the standard of the players and the national team is climbing the ranks. It’s a good time for Malaysian football.”

It’s a special time for JDT. Since taking over as owner in 2016, Johor’s Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim has helped to turn around the team, finances, facilities and fortunes. With a state-of-the-art 40,000-seat stadium and a club theme song rapped by Snoop Dogg, they’re turning heads on and off the pitch.

The owner’s input was key.

“He gives us everything we need and pushes us,” Hong said. “He urges us to never be satisfied with 1-0 or 2-0 wins. We have beaten almost every team this year but he will demand more. I think the culture of the club comes from the owner.”

The crown prince attended all of the team’s home games and was in the dressing room before the Malaysian FA Cup final, giving him a pre-match pep talk, saying he was “sending us off to war” – words that still give Hong goosebumps.

It worked, and Hong fired a powerful 25-yard shot into the top right corner of the goal for his first official senior soccer goal. “I’d never taken a shot before. When I got the ball, I’m sure my teammates were like, ‘What are you doing?'”

As a teenager, Hong looked up to Barcelona’s longtime midfield star Sergio Busquets. “You don’t necessarily have to run a lot,” Hong says. “Just be in the right position at the right time and use your brain more than your whole body. That’s what makes all the difference.”

At JDT, Hong has also learned from players with Premiership and Championship backgrounds, including former Swansea defender Jordi Amat, former Millwall player Shane Lowry and Watford cult hero Fernando Forestieri, one of the Malaysian Super League’s top scorers.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Fernando Forestieri was a popular figure at Watford

Hong is a key player on a team that regularly wins games by four or five goals.

“It’s fantastic to be part of making new history. This year marks our 10th consecutive win, which is almost unprecedented in the world of football,” he said.

But the downside is the lack of a credible Malaysian opposition.

“Nobody wants to see a league with only one team,” Hong added. “I feel like a lot of teams give up before playing us, and it’s a bit frustrating because if the league level goes up, we can improve and be prepared for high-intensity matches. [AFC] Champions League.”

Asia’s leading continental club tournament is the next challenge for JDT, who reached the last 16 for the first time in 2022. “It’s unheard of for a small Malaysian club to achieve such success against big teams from Japan and Korea. Now our aim is to step up and keep improving every year,” says Hong.

Few English players have followed a similar path to Hong, who gained Malaysian citizenship to play for JDT – most famously England striker Tony Cotee, who won the Malaysian FA Cup during his season with Selangor in 1997 – but Hong believes more players should consider the move.

“I feel like a lot of English players only think about England. There are so many more opportunities around the world – Europe, Asia, America,” Hong said. “I can live a different lifestyle and it could be good for my professional career. I’m really happy to move.”

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