TAN Sri Annuar Musa’s flight from Auckland had landed at KLIA at about 9pm and there was quite a big group waiting for him.
Some were political supporters, others were football fans, but they were all worked up over what they regarded as a “dirty trick” to undermine his candidacy for the presidency of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).
Annuar’s suspension as Mara chairman a few days earlier sent shock waves through Umno.
The tremors were also felt in the football circles because the suspension had to do with Mara’s sponsorship of football activities in Kelantan where Annuar is a central figure.
The group of mostly Kelantanese had even brought along an ustaz to pray for Annuar.
One of them was holding a huge cardboard with a distinctly Kelantan slogan: Pray 4 TSAM. Gomo abe war gomo. Xsoh undur walau stapok (Pray for Tan Sri Anwar Musa. Go more, brother Anwar, go more. Don’t surrender even a step).
But there was no sign of Annuar, not even when the last of the passengers and flight crew went by.
“I got quite worried. I remember thinking – I hope he has not been arrested,” said his long-time friend and Kok Lanas assemblyman Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad who was among the group.
Finally, the lone figure of Annuar emerged. He had hung back to check the string of messages on his phone from friends and acquaintances asking about his dilemma.
Annuar received the earth-shattering news while he was leading a Mara education delegation to New Zealand. He was about to start a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland when a top Mara official called to inform him of the suspension. It is a good thing that there is an actor in most politicians, otherwise he would have been unable to proceed with the meeting.
The Mara suspension could not have come at a worst time. Annuar is eyeing the FAM presidency which was prematurely vacated last year by the Pahang Crown Prince Tengku Abdullah ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah.
His leading rival for the post is another Crown Prince, Johor’s Tunku Ismail ibni Sultan Ibrahim although there are two other potential candidates – Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Putrajaya Corp president Tan Sri Aseh Che Mat.
It has been a rough couple of months for Annuar because he has been embroiled in a war of words with Tunku Ismail who is better known by his distinctive initials, TMJ (Tunku Mahkota Johor).
Their disagreements were played out on social media which meant that every Tom, Dick and Harry were privy to it. It was not pleasant and the media had a field day.
Annuar, who is the Ketereh MP and Umno information chief, lost face after being ridiculed and accused of all sorts of things by the young royal.
At the same time, Tunku Ismail, who is only 32, had not exactly enhanced his own image in speaking that way to an elder man.
The two men are a generation and a world apart. Annuar grew up in Kelantan where his father was a well-known religious tok guru and made his name in Umno politics.
Tunku Ismail’s upbringing reads like a fairy tale – his father gave him his own private jet for his birthday and his official car is a Rolls-Royce.
He owns the JDT or Johor Darul Ta’zim football club which has won several championship trophies and is set to be the first football club in the country with its own private aircraft.
However, they have one thing in common – both are alpha males or what is known as jantan or macho in Malay society and that is why neither are backing off.
Their fallout began sometime in December after one of the state FAM affiliates, the Melaka United Soccer Association (MUSA), declared support for Aseh as the next FAM president.
Aseh, at 65, is the oldest of all the contenders for the top post. He was a top civil servant and his son is one of several political secretaries to the Prime Minister.
However, rightly or wrongly, Aseh is widely perceived as a “proxy candidate”.
That was when Annuar spoke out, urging the young prince to decide whether he wanted the top post, saying that FAM should not be managed by proxy.
Annuar was basically saying what was in the hearts of many FAM officials – the president must run FAM together with the other elected officials rather than take orders from someone outside the FAM leadership.
Annuar had also declared that he was willing to support Tunku Ismail as the next president.
In fact, many in FAM are willing to throw their support behind Tunku Ismail. What they do not want is a proxy president.
But the relationship between Annuar and Tunku Ismail went downhill after that and the torrent of exchanges began.
Football, like politics, can bring out the best and worst in people and when football and politics collide, the tremors are felt everywhere.
It is not easy to take on a royal figure as one politician after another has discovered. You may have people power but they have ascribed powers.
Moreover, the Johor royal house is riding an incredible wave of popularity in its homestate.
It was natural for many of Annuar’s supporters to jump to the conclusion that his Mara suspension had something to do with the contest for the FAM presidency because it was Tunku Ismail who first went public on Annuar’s alleged abuse of power in Mara.
But Umno insiders said the Mara suspension had more to do with Umno politics than football.
Mara comes under the purview of Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and it is no secret that Ismail and Annuar have not been getting along.
Umno insiders said that Ismail thinks he is entitled to call the shots on matters concerning Mara while Annuar thinks that as the chairman, he does not always have to consult Ismail.
But the way the suspension was done did not go down well with many in Umno.
It was front-page news in all the newspapers and the mobile chat groups of Umno members have been on fire about what happened.
There is sympathy for Annuar but very few are keen to speak up because many of them rely on the clout that Ismail’s ministry carries in the Malay heartland. The division Umno leaders feel like they are torn between two family members.
“The feedback is that it could have been better handled. There was no need to embarrass him this way,” said Alwi.
Annuar, known for his oratory skills, took over the information chief post only a year ago but is already seen as one of the most dynamic and effective information chiefs Umno has ever had.
As a result, Ismail who is the Bera MP, is also feeling the heat. Critics of Ismail even claimed he is doing all this with an eye on the vice-president contest in the Umno election and that he views Annuar as a potential rival.
That is quite a ridiculous argument because Annuar has shown little interest in becoming vice-president. His primetime in politics has passed and that is why he is casting his net on the football field.
Annuar is confident that he has done no wrong and had voluntarily gone to the MACC headquarters in Putrajaya the day after returning from New Zealand.
He was at the MACC office first thing in the morning – at 8.57am, to be precise – and was questioned for four hours on the allegations against him.
“Although I have denied them, a denial is not enough. So I will let them investigate me, I will not run away from my responsibilities,” said Annuar.
Three days after his date with the MACC, Annuar handed in his papers to contest for the FAM presidency.
More significantly, Annuar did it one hour after the Johor Southern Tigers Facebook page posted news that the Sultan of Johor had given his consent for Tunku Ismail to go for the post with the advice to “change Malaysian football”.
Tunku Ismail’s response to that had been: “I will follow Tuanku’s command.”
Malaysian football has been in decline the last 30 years and whoever takes over will be carrying a near impossible mission of reviving the country’s statute in the game.
There will be more brickbats than bouquets and as the Malay saying goes, those who live by the seas cannot be afraid of the waves.Nominations close tomorrow and the big question is whether Annuar keeps his word to make way for Tunku Ismail.
Some of the FAM officials think Annuar will pull out when Tunku Ismail confirms his candidacy.
Others say it is game on. The answer is still blowing in the wind.
The irony is that although football is the rakyat’s sport, the post-independence FAM has been led by prime ministers, ministers and royals.
Khairy has said quite rightly that the FAM presidency is not about whether one is a politician or royalty and that it is about the capacity and influence to bring all the stakeholders together so that the organisation can take Malaysian football to another level.