Barely two months ago, nobody in Malaysia had ever heard of him, let alone the club that he plays for in Zambia. Today, he has emerged as one of the most famous football players in Malaysia, judging by how rapidly his popularity continues to soar in Malaysian social media domains and yet, Malaysians have never even seen him play other than the brief highlights of him or his club, ZESCO United that can be found on YouTube. His name is Marcel Kalonda.

Kalonda first came to my attention during the slow days of the Movement Control Order (MCO), which is the Malaysian version of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Pre-MCO, hours which would normally be utilised for meetings and appointments were now suddenly free for me to dedicate to researching, writing and uncovering the next football wonderkid on the only computer game I have ever devoted to a large portion of my adult life, Football Manager. As its gamers are a closely-knit community, we would often trade tactical advice and most importantly, who to sign for our respective teams. One of the gems of this game is its very extensive database, a tool that offers amazingly accurate football information that has witnessed a lot of gaming prophecies achieving real-life successes. A young Lionel Messi was almost signed by Glasgow Rangers in 2002 as a youth product of La Masia, courtesy of Rangers’ then Manager Alex McCleish whose son played the game and was persistent for dad to do so. For Malaysians who are avid fans of the game, there is an even greater thrill; locating foreign-based players that could qualify to play for Malaysia. That was how the excitement surrounding Marcel Kalonda ignited.

When I was first alerted of a certain Malaysian-born Congolese defender that was doing well for one of the gamers, I did the very thing that other people would have done; I started searching for him. With the help of a fellow football writer and colleague in Zambia, Mutheliso Phiri, we were able to track him and hear exclusively from Marcel himself that he has blood relations with Malaysia via his grandfather, despite having minimal memory of him as he had passed away when he was a child. The rest, as they say, is history.

At a time when football was basically non-existent and other sports news was slow, the revelation of Kalonda’s Malaysian connection dominated the news in our neck of the woods and had everyone buzzing. I was in disbelief seeing how fast things escalated from the day it was first made known but was obviously thrilled of the fact. To add to everyone’s excitement, Marcel himself proclaimed that he was ready to don the hallowed jersey of his paternal homeland.

As Marcel’s popularity among Malaysians surged and the demand for him to be drafted grew persistently each day, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) responded by saying that they have made contact with the player himself, and had given him the opportunity to submit official documents proving that he has blood ties with Malaysia as claimed. The most recent development indicated that Marcel Kalonda will be submitting more supporting documents that are needed from the initial batch of documents that have been forwarded to FAM. Once the documentation issue is resolved, he will then have to “audition” himself in front of the coaching and technical team which includes, among others, Tan Cheng Hoe, Malaysia’s national team coach. An exceptional performance at this stage will be crucial to determine that he would be worth all the effort for FAM, although I have been informed that he has already caught the eye of Tan Cheng Hoe based on his performances for Zesco United in the African Champions League.

Despite the frenzy and excitement, what Marcel never realised was that he has also caused a serious debate to emerge among the footballing fraternity in Malaysia. Questions were asked; is he worthy of a spot in the Malaysian national team? Is this something that we need? And the most critical question of all, is he legitimately “Malaysian” as he claims?

Marcel Kalonda joining the Malaysian national team or the Harimau Malaya (Malayan Tigers) as it is passionately known brings all kinds of advantages. Not being drafted in as a naturalised player, he would have less pressure as someone with blood ties to Malaysia as opposed to foreigners that are naturalised for the sake of playing international football. Age is also on his side, at 22 years old, and for someone who has played in the highest club competition in Africa, he would certainly be distinctive. Fans are in agreement that Marcel may just be the fix that is needed at the heart of the team’s defence, which is currently one of its concerns. However, this move should not be seen as undermining the local talents that can also feature in those positions, especially the up and coming players. Competition is needed to avoid the players remaining in their comfort zone, and to quote another football fan and friend, “if a player wants something so bad, he should work his socks off”. I also view this as a valuable acquisition for the coach. If Marcel achieves his Malaysian dream, Harimau Malaya would have gained a centre-back of calibre with experience playing abroad, in addition to the existing crop of talent.

However, this also begs the question: Just how many foreign or mixed-heritage players do we intend to bring into the national team? The possible inclusion of Kalonda has deepened the fault lines amongst local fans, each passionate about their views with regards to the matter. At present, Malaysia already has two naturalised players and is now waiting for the third, in the form of a striker from Brazil. Despite being considered as a mixed-heritage player, for most people, the Kalonda debate appears to centre heavily upon his Congolese outlook while trying to enrol into a team that is, at the moment, a fusion of pure Malaysians, half Malaysians and a Malaysian-bred Gambian in its starting eleven. While for others, the concern of having more “players like Kalonda” could diminish the team’s “Malaysian identity” and originality.

One of the objectives of Malaysia’s naturalisation programme, as outlined by FAM’s Naturalisation Committee is to help achieve its short term goals, in this case, qualifying for the Asian Cup in 2023. More importantly, it is a mechanism that is allowed and sanctioned by FIFA, the highest football authority in the world. Hence, for FAM, since everyone else is doing it, why can’t we?

The Malaysian government has approached the topics of nationality and citizenship conservatively as seen through its handling of matters relating to them. However, they have allowed FAM to undertake whatever steps and approaches it deems necessary to help improve the performance of Malaysian football in order to achieve greater successes on the pitch. That said, FAM should also understand that the Harimau Malaya has an identity that needs to be upheld. For the fans, it has a unique history and a special DNA that perhaps only Malaysians understand.

The Harimau Malaya crest is the most sacred thing for every Malaysian player to have on their chest. It would be the ultimate dream for any player to wear that crest and push himself to the limit on the pitch of the National Stadium Bukit Jalil, while the roaring crowd of 90,000 faithful Ultras Malaya rally them on, an honour reserved only for the very best.

Marcel Kalonda may have already become a Malaysian football superstar if social media is to be the judge, but the real jury would be the Malaysian fans. His performance while donning the Harimau Malaya crest and colours will be the true test of how he is judged as a Malaysian.