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 By Jason Dasey

Bojan Hodak deserves chance to be Malaysia coach, not Mario Gomez

Bojan Hodak won six Malaysian trophies with Kelantan and JDT between 2012 and 2015.

KUALA LUMPUR -- The financial problems of Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) will turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it means that Croatian Bojan Hodak becomes national coach now that Argentina's Mario Gomez has ruled himself out.

Both men worked for the new FAM president at Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT). Gomez was the first choice of the Crown Prince of Johor (TMJ), and due to take over last week until it was revealed that FAM are RM40 million (US$9 million) in debt.

Gomez rejected a reduced offer, opting to stay in Buenos Aires, which has opened the door for the man whom the South American replaced at JDT in April 2015.

Australia under-23 coach Josep Gombau, the former Barcelona youth boss who was in charge of A-League club Adelaide United for two years, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

But the straight-talking Hodak, who has been a player and coach in Southeast Asia for the past 20 years, would be a smarter choice. The former centre-back knows the country and football culture better than any other foreigner. He's married to a woman from Penang and his eight-year-old son Luka was born in Malaysia.

Hodak was one of three finalists in January 2016 when then-interim boss Datuk Ong Kim Swee was given a two-year contract as national coach. TMJ has made it clear he doesn't want Ong to continue with the top job, moving him back to the under-23 side. So, rather than fulfilling his fantasy of flying in someone from offshore to revamp the fading, and renamed Harimau Malaya, TMJ would be best advised to go back to bald-headed Bojan.

Argentine imports like Luciano Figueroa rather than local players helped Mario Gomez make his name at JDT.

Only Gomez has won more major titles than Hodak over the past five years, but that was fuelled by JDT's talented imports like Luciano Figueroa, Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Juan Martin Lucero.

One of the reasons that Hodak left JDT two years ago was due to problems he had working with two of the club's Argentine stars. It wasn't surprising that Gomez had a better rapport with his countrymen, but when it comes to getting the best out of the local players, Hodak's record speaks for itself.

Before his JDT stint, Hodak won four trophies in two seasons at Kelantan, including the 2012 Malaysia Super League. The year before, he tasted league success with Phnom Penh Crown in Cambodia. And, as an assistant, he helped Shandong Luneng make the 2011 China FA Cup final.

Heads were turned on Wednesday when Hodak was spotted in Johor Bahru, raising speculation that he'd met with TMJ to discuss the national job, or even the prospect of taking over from Benjamin Mora at under-performing JDT. But he was actually in the state capital for a wedding on the way to his son's junior football camp in Singapore.

Josep Gombau
Former Barcelona youth coach Josep Gombau, now Australia U23 boss, is admired by the new FAM president.

The spectacular failure of ex-Manchester United junior Ashley Westwood at Penang this season showed just how difficult working in Malaysia can be. Westwood had an excellent football pedigree, having clinched two Indian titles in three seasons with Bengaluru FC. But with a "My way or the highway" kind of approach, he failed to win a single league game, losing six of eight matches before leaving via mutual consent last month.

The previous year, Hodak came into floundering Penang as CEO mid-season, with countryman Nenad Bacina as manager, and saved them from relegation. Based on results in the second half of the campaign, Penang had the fourth-best record in the 2016 MSL.

He left Penang at the end of the year because he felt that the Georgetown-based side didn't share his vision for the future, opening the door for Westwood's disastrous entry.

Hodak has the cultural sensitivities to get the best out of Malaysian players, and the tactical nous to create winning teams. His stern appearance sends a message to players not to mess with him, yet he also understands the unique cultural and religious tapestry that makes up Malaysian society.

Take away Gomez's super South Americans, and he's struggled on Asian soil. When they had to rely on local players only, JDT were a shadow of the team who won three consecutive MSL titles and the 2015 AFC Cup. He wasn't particularly successful during his short stint with Hong Kong's South China before moving to Malaysia, nor in Europe before that. 

There's no doubt that TMJ is under pressure to make a splash in his first month as FAM president by bringing in a marquee name. But it makes no sense, given the national body's financial plight.

Appointing Hodak will be palatable for the fans, and could actually help the national team in their 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign.

Although it may not be a sexy appointment -- Hodak has the same hairstyle but he's certainly no Guardiola -- it would certainly be a prudent move for the future of Malaysian football.

Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.


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