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Guide to the Malaysian Football League System

A passionate Football (Soccer) fan who is into the sport as both a player, a fan, and in the future, a coach.

The early days of structured football in Malaysia.

The early days of structured football in Malaysia.

Football was introduced to Malaysia (then known as Malaya) by the British. The game was quickly picked up by the natives, and it soon became the country's most popular sport. Football was one of the core foundations of most sports clubs in Malaya at the end of the 19th century. It was, however, unstructured. Even before the formation of the Selangor Amateur Football League in 1905—which assured adequate governance—the competition was confined only to clubs in Kuala Lumpur, the nation's capital.

Official league football began on a national level in 1982, but it was still an amateur league between state football associations rather than club football. It lasted until 1989 when a semi-professional era began. Teams represented their respective state FAs, the armed forces, and the police force. Even teams representing neighboring countries such as Singapore and Brunei were allowed to compete. This lasted until 1994.

Sabah FA, one of the early teams in the Malaysian Premier League in 1994.

Sabah FA, one of the early teams in the Malaysian Premier League in 1994.

Initial League Structure

Here is a look at how the league was structured in the early days.

Professional League Status (1994 - 2003)

In 1994, the Malaysian league was elevated to a professional league, and it was run by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM). It was first known as the Malaysian Premier League, with an inaugural season featuring 16 teams, including 13 state FA teams, two international teams, and Kuala Lumpur. This concept, however, was short-lived, since the Malaysian Premier League was split into two divisions in 1998, MPL 1 and MPL 2.

Malaysian Premier League 1 was, without a doubt, the premier tier. The division consisted of 12 teams. Malaysian Premier League 2 was the second division that featured eight teams. Semi-professional clubs were still allowed to play in the league at this time. They were allowed a maximum of 25 players. 12 players were required to have MPL 1 experience and 6 players needed experience in MPL 2. This format went on until 2003 when the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) decided to privatize the leagues.

Super League Era (2004 - Present)

Following the privatization of the leagues, all clubs from the previous league were placed in a playoff event. The victorious teams were promoted to the Super League (Division 1) and the losers were relegated to the Premier League (Division 2). These were the only professional leagues in Malaysia until 2008.

Selangor FA, one of the top teams during the early Malaysian Super League era.

Selangor FA, one of the top teams during the early Malaysian Super League era.

Current Structure

Here is a look at the league today.

Between 2008 - 2018

The FAM League was established in 2008 as the third division of the Malaysian football league. Professional teams (relegated from the Premier League) and semi-professional teams (funded to join the third tier) compete in this league.

While the restructuring was taking place, the Football Association of Malaysia introduced a new division with the goal of giving semi-professional and amateur teams an opportunity to enter the Malaysian league system. This division, consisting of teams from 13 states and federal territories, was called the States league.

Between 2018 - Present

The FAM league and States league were renamed the M3 League and M4 League respectively. This was part of a reformation aimed at allowing any team in the country to compete in the Malaysian football league system.

The Malaysian Football League logo since the restructuring.

The Malaysian Football League logo since the restructuring.

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Divisions in the New Structure

While the Malaysian league system has only four official tiers, the first three divisions have a simpler structure that is comparable to the English football league system. All teams compete on a national level between divisions 1 and 5.

First Division (Malaysian Super League)

The Malaysian Super League (MSL) consists of 12 professional clubs. The league's winners qualify for the AFC Champions League, while the runners-up qualify for the AFC Cup. The bottom two teams, on the other hand, are relegated to the second tier.

Second Division (Malaysian Premier League)

The Malaysian Premier League consists of 12 teams. The top two teams from each division will be promoted to the Super League, while the bottom two will be relegated to the third division.

Third Division (M3 League)

For the 2020 season, the league adopted a new format that separated the league's 20 teams into two groups of 10 teams. While it appears simple at first glance (the top two teams from each group advance to the playoffs to choose two winners), things get a little more tricky here.

Teams will be evaluated based on their financial records prior to the start of the season. The top 12 teams in good financial standing remain in the M3 League for 2021 and the remaining 8 move to the M4 League.

The goal is to convert clubs from amateur to semi-professional status, giving them financial autonomy to govern the club. The 2021 M3 League season will be the first to include this unique format.

Aside from the league's system of promotions and relegations, a club's financial stability is another aspect that determines whether or not they stay in this division. Two teams will be promoted via playoffs, and while there are currently no relegations, reorganization is still underway.

Selangor Champions League, one of the major state-level leagues in the Malaysian football league system.

Selangor Champions League, one of the major state-level leagues in the Malaysian football league system.

Fourth Division and Below (M4 League)

This is the district-level league in the system. Divisions four and below compete at a state level where all 13 states and 3 federal territories have their respective leagues.

Teams in the fourth division do not automatically achieve promotion to Malaysia's third division. However, if they have a satisfactory financial position, they can request to join when a team in the third division withdraws.

Fourth division teams compete in their respective state league, which has another separate system of their own. Any league below the state league is divided into geographical districts within the state, which can consist of various other leagues and divisions.

Future of Malaysian Football League

The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) has an ongoing project to restructure the lower leagues to give them the opportunity to compete in higher divisions. As of now, they are in the midst of restructuring divisions three and four, and there could be a potential fifth division in the future.

As an amateur footballer myself, this is a great opportunity for teams like the ones I represent. It can allow us to continue developing ourselves professionally in the sport we love.

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© 2021 Nigel Koay Talks Football

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