One of the things I’ve come to realize is that there’s a huge gap when it comes to media literacy between international and Malaysian footballers. Before you start swearing at your computer screen or tablet, hear (read) me out. Yes, I know what most of you will be saying/thinking:

“We are producing footballers and not world leaders, so the sport takes priority over academic education”

“We live in Malaysia, why must footballers speak English?”

“Lionel Messi can’t speak a word of English. He’s the best footballer on planet earth”

Yes, I can read minds. Allow me to address these questions. First one: there is a stereotype in our society that athletes are generally less intelligent, academically.

I’ve spoken to a few products of our sports school (who refused to be named) and they all agree that before Marina Chin took over as headmistress, there was no emphasis on education.

At all. Students could fail their subjects and still continue without a worry in the world. Now I don’t expect these athletes to be straight A students – because lets face it, they sometimes train early in the morning for hours, and by the time they go into class, they’re exhausted.

Yes, some can say it’s an excuse but the reality is, these kids know why they’re in a sports school – for sporting reasons, and without any pressure to deliver results academically, how many would take education seriously?

This is my perspective – I used to produce a variety show, where we bring athletes on, celebrities, and talk about football. I can count with 1 hand, the number of Malaysian footballers who could speak English. The rest - couldn’t be bothered.

Here, I am doing my part to give credit to Malaysian footballers, to feature them – ‘show’ the urban public, especially, to create Malaysian heroes, but after every recording, I can’t help but feel it backfires. I sometimes even feel like we end up making them a laughing stock. We don’t ask them questions about economics, history or biology – none of that. The least I’m asking for is the ability to hold a conversation. Aside from TV, surely decent English command will be useful for other important engagements such as contract negotiation. Many Malaysian footballers do not employ agents or managers – they deal with the clubs directly.

Let’s not even go into the legal terminology in contracts, these players do not even understand basic English – how are they supposed to make an informed decision without getting abused by the clubs? So while, the intention to have Malaysian footballers go through some form of media literacy classes may be a selfish one – because it makes for great content on English TV, but there are countless benefits for the footballer himself.

Also, moving forward – what happens after they retire from the sport? Your career lasts for 15 years – when you can’t let your game do the talking anymore, what are you going to hide behind? I would strongly propose to have a compulsory class for all our athletes on media literacy – to teach them how to handle themselves in the public eye, and of course English is a big component in all of this.

How each and every athlete conducts themselves in the media is so important for the image of Malaysian sport – each one of them represent the country, whether they like it or not. Let’s aim to improve the standard of our sporting talents AND also challenge the system to expect more from them in an educational perspective.

Next point – “we live in Malaysia, why must footballers speak English’. We get this comment a lot. Let me just say this – the ability to converse in English is in no way related to one’s patriotism.

It is for their own good. Why turn this into an issue of nationalism? A lot of viewers attack the hosts of that variety show saying, why don’t we converse to the footballers in Bahasa – first reason, because it’s an English language program, and secondly, why should we endorse mediocrity? If we end up conversing to these players in Bahasa to accommodate them, doesn’t it come across as condescending?

Instead we challenge them to improve themselves – show the world that Malaysian footballers are able to converse in good English, that they are all wholesome individuals, and not one-dimensional.

Don’t get me wrong – this happens in many countries too. In Germany for instance – I attended a conference in Dusseldorf with the German Bundesliga, discussing how to improve their league as a product. My feedback was to have a dedicated player from each team, at least one – to do a pre and post match interview. Let’s face it – that’s one of the big differentiating factors between the Premier League and other European leagues as a product.

Of course, subtitles and translations are functional bla bla bla – but that’s the reality. The response from the Bundesliga team was that catering for English speaking broadcasters and markets was not a priority for the clubs. Case closed. But of course, you shouldn’t compare Malaysians with Germans – they are world champions.

We are – not even close to qualifying. In no way is that an excuse but it does factor into the equation. Which brings me nicely to my next point:

“Lionel Messi can’t speak a word of English. He’s the best footballer on planet earth”. Noted. Understood. But he’s Lionel Messi. Who are we? He can do what he wants. What is our excuse? The day we can produce 1 Messi in our Malaysian setup, I’m pretty sure, English proficiency will be less of a focus.

"Aside to this, the English language is not a compulsory subject in most of South American primary education. We learn English at the age of 7! Think about it, I’m just putting the spotlight on one area – English language. We’ve not even stepped into Science, Geography, History etc. And if you are going back to the excuse of ‘no time because we spend so many hours a day training and playing’, then it comes down to the individual.

"I know for a fact that there a few degree holders among the professionals in our Malaysian Super League, well done to them! That tells me you take yourselves seriously. And being book smart is in no way going to negatively affect your performance on the field.

"For sure. Even if you compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo, you can see a small difference – Ronaldo is more marketable. Why because he is media savvy. He can speak English and understands the importance of engaging the media.

Another reason why Malaysian footballers should be given compulsory media literacy classes is purely to improve their confidence. One footballer we interviewed a few years ago, was shivering backstage. Fearful of the occasion. Fearful of being on TV. I don’t blame him – he’s young but with proper training and guidance from a young age, it wouldn’t be such a daunting task.

This footballer could play without pressure or fear in a packed stadium of 45,000 but put him in front of 3 television cameras, and he turns pale. We had the privilege of interviewing Liverpool players from the Under 17 age group once, they were really personable on camera. And upon further query, I found out that they do undergo media classes! So there’s no excuse, however young you are.

And it’s not unheard of – intelligent footballers. It is common knowledge that England legend Frank Lampard recorded a very high IQ score in the Mensa Test. Great footballer. Former Brazil captain Socrates was a doctor.

Great footballer. World Cup winner Juan Mata did a double major when he moved to London. Great footballer. European championship winner Oliver Bierhoff is an Economics graduate. Great footballer. It’s possible. And think about it – surely most footballers have some inbuilt understanding of mathematics – look at how free kicks are taken these days, physics.

Surely you don’t want to be labeled as a “stupid footballer” -- unless you are happy to accept any criticism because at the end of the day, you earn more than the person writing this article.

So if you are a parent of a footballer – challenge them. If you’re a teacher of a footballer – challenge them. If you are a friend of a footballer – challenge them. If you are a footballer – challenge yourself.