It's time for Selangor to start letting go of cavernous, cumbersome Shah Alam Stadium

Perhaps reflecting the decline in the fortunes of the team that makes it their homeground, the Shah Alam Stadium has seen better days.

Despite its size, these days, the 80,000-seater multi-purpose venue is looking more like a liability to the 33-time Malaysia Cup winners than an asset.

Competitions organiser Malaysian Football League's (MFL) sudden commitment towards fan safety by barring the Red Giants from using the stadium just one week before the 2020 season kicked off due to rumours that pieces of the roof were falling off onto the stands below may raise a few eyebrows, but there's no questioning that the decision was the latest in a long line of issues faced by the state of Selangor-owned ground.

But the Shah Alam Stadium wasn't always a trouble-plagued ground that it has been in the past five years or so. When it was launched in 1994, it was the biggest stadium in the country and the most advanced, costing RM480 million.

Its officiation too was a star-studded affair. The Mitsubishi International Invitational Tournament was held there, involving the Red Giants, European giants Bayern Munich, Brazil's Flamengo, Scotland's Dundee United (as Inter Milan's replacement), Australia Olympics team, and England's Leeds United participated in the tournament.

Over the years, due to its sheer size it has not only played host to Selangor, but also numerous domestic cup finals, as well as international football competitions and matches.

Shah Alam Stadium, 26/07/2017

A Malaysia friendly match held at the Shah Alam Stadium in 2017. Photo from Getty

Even without touching on problems that are caused by a lack of proper maintenance, the Shah Alam Stadium displays several design flaws as a football ground. Its ability to hold a big crowd as well as numerous types of events inadvertantly makes matchday experience there a rather unsatisfactory one to the purists.

While like most grounds in the country, the pitch is surrounded by a running track, the most noticable difference is that the Shah Alam Stadium stands sit further from the pitch due to the track itself being surrounded by warm-up areas, as well as a huge drain. The fans are situated far from the action, even those seating in the front most row.

The way the stands were built also put most of the fans even further from the pitch. While good major-sized football stadiums 'stack' one row of the stands on top of another to ensure that fans remain fairly close to the pitch, the Shah Alam Stadium stands open up wide rather than high.

It is perhaps unfair to point out the stadium's inherent design flaws as a football ground due to the fact that it was built for events other than just football, but it cannot be denied that the woes it has been facing in the past five years stem from the gap between the club's needs and the state government's willingness to maintain the sporting facilities that it owns.

The most glaring issue that has affected the stadium is none other than its pitch. Despite having been renovated a number of times, it would turn bumpy rather quickly, while a heavy rain will render it soggy. Therein lies one example of the gap in between the government's willingness and the club's needs; while the team needs a good playing surface, the state government sees nothing wrong with its current state and will not do more to improve it.

Sharbinee, Rangel, Selangor - Perak

Selangor vs Perak at Shah Alam Stadium in 2013. Photo by Izzat Akmal

It's safe to say that the safety hazard recently posed by the roof is another example in this gap, despite it having first surfaced years before. Funnily enough, at the end of 2016 the state government did somehow find the money to install 80 CCTV cameras around the stadium, purportedly to combat hooliganism. (Even more comically, just months later it would evict the Red Giants from the stadium due to a boardroom spat. Only in late 2018 they would be allowed to make the stadium their home ground again.)

The decline in attendance suffered by Malaysian football over the last 30 years has affected almost all Malaysian professional teams, but at the cavernous Shah Alam Stadium, this effect is further compounded.

While in the mid 1990's there was little problem for the Malaysian powerhouse to draw at least 30,000 spectators to its home matches, these days they are lucky to get 15,000 bums in the seats. While the 7,000 fans they typically draw in each home match is in no way shameful a figure, it makes for a pitiful matchday atmosphere at the 80,000-capacity stadium, which in turn makes attending Selangor home matches even more unappealing.

This effect has been increasingly noted by the Red Giants fanbase who realised that their home matches at the much-smaller Selayang Stadium and KLFA Stadium, during the club's vagabond 2017 and 2018 seasons, were a livelier and more intimate experience, despite the fact that a group of them did beseech the state to allow the team to return to the city of Shah Alam during that particular period.

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Kuala Lumpur vs Selangor at KLFA Stadium. Photo by Farabi Firdaus

This is in fact in line with the current trend seen among football clubs across the globe. While the major ones will from to time to time expand their home ground capacity to accomodate their growing fanbase, the more modestly successful ones are happy enough to occupy a football-specific ground that can fit between only 10,000 to 20,000 fans at any one time. While these kinds of grounds make for a better matchday experience, the limited capacity also creates scarcity which will in turn generate demand for matchday tickets. The Australian A-League has seen more of its teams use such stadiums, which are referred to as 'boutique stadiums'.

The condition of the Shah Alam Stadium has led to calls from the fans and external parties for the club management under president, Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin to build a new, smaller stadium, but so far the club has not expressed such a plan, at least not in public. After all, even a modestly-sized stadium will incur a huge cost for a club that is in the midst of rebuilding.

The last time Goal posed a question on the matter to its secretary-general Johan Kamal Hamidon, we only received a coy reply: "We'll see! There's a lot of work to be done!"

While the club chooses to remain at the Shah Alam Stadium, they need to be more serious about fixing the pitch and the roof. But at the same time, efforts must also be made to address the issue of poor atmosphere. Suggestions have been made to limit seating at the stadium to certain sections of the stands so as to make the fans' seating arrangement tighter. 

Another way is for them to emulate how Korean clubs have addressed the problem; by erecting temporary stands on the track, which takes their fans closer to the action.

However, despite the club's lack of publicly-declared plan to build a football-specific stadium, a source has earlier this year told Goal that the club do actually have a plan to play in a smaller stadium. But rather than building a new ground, they plan on leasing one of the smaller stadiums in the state from the government. While minor renovations will be needed to accommodate the Red Giants' matchday needs at the ground, the club also plan to transform its immediate surrounding area into a mini business park, to generate revenue for them. The source however declined to pinpoint the exact stadium that the club is planning to takeover.

But before this piece of revelation gets the Selangor fans excited, it must be noted that the plan was mentioned before the worldwide Covid-19 outbreak and competitions suspension, which have since affected a lot of clubs' finances. 

It is understandable for Selangor to choose to remain at their current home ground, but they must at least come up with a plan to address their mediocre turnout figures and poor atmosphere. When plans were announced to hold Malaysian league matches without fans after the pandemic is deemed to have been beaten back, there was a mocking response on social media : "Not much will change when Selangor play at home then."