Malaysia has scarcely ever been much of a magnet for French footballers, but career plans could soon be revised if the last three months are anything to go by. Anxious for a new start in the game after first learning the ropes at Paris Saint-Germain, Mickael Dawood Nicoise has been casting a spell over the southeast Asian nation since he arrived, and he has started to blaze a trail for his compatriots.
Nicoise’s story began in the Parisian suburb of Bondy, though the prospect of foreign adventure was never a distant possibility for the forward with Guadeloupian roots, who represented the island five times at international level. He first made a name for himself at Amiens between 2002 and 2004, but once that spell came to an end he began looking abroad for options, representing five overseas clubs in six years, including three seasons in the Belgian top flight.
Despite his rich CV, however, he has never been happier than he is now at Malaysian outfit PKNS. “Given everything I’m learning here day to day, the lifestyle and the working conditions, for now it’s the best experience of my whole career,” he told FIFA.com, fresh from topping the scoring charts for Tournai in Belgium’s second tier last term, with ten goals in 24 outings.
“Over here, the clubs give us everything we need to be confident and only think about the game. The players are in the best physical condition and, after my difficult experiences in Egypt, this has been a renaissance. I’m discovering a whole other world and it’s extraordinary any way you look at it.”
‘Everything a footballer needs’
A convert to Islam with two daughters, Mika is savouring this fresh chapter in his life, having grown accustomed to being seen as a wasted talent with no fixed roots since his excellent season with Brussels in 2005/06. “The Asian mentality is very professional and it’s nothing like it is in Europe,” explained the 27-year-old.
“We have a genuine training complex with five pitches, including a synthetic one. We also have a gym and a swimming pool – in short, everything a footballer needs. That’s better than anything I came across in Belgium and it’s at the same level as the second division in France. The English legacy is still strong too as this really is a football country. Out of the 14 teams in the championship, 12 have 35,000-seater stadiums, so almost every weekend we play in superb venues full of supporters.”
I’m discovering a whole other world and it’s extraordinary any way you look at it.
To earn his ninth professional contract, the former Neuchatel Xamax playmaker underwent a week-long trial with PKNS last October. That gave him just two matches to leave his mark, but he quickly convinced the coaching staff of his worth, securing a longer stay with the promoted side, one branch of a multi-sport club based 20 minutes outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
“I was lucky enough that the Malaysian transfer window was open when I found myself out of contract after leaving Al Masry without having played a single game. My agents contacted me and I didn’t hesitate because I wanted to play in a Muslim country.
“I was a bit worried at the start because I didn’t know anything about the place, but honestly I’ve been very pleasantly surprised,” added Nicoise, one of 28 foreign players in Malaysia’s elite division. “It’s a very developed country and the level of the football isn’t bad at all. I’d even say that it’s a bit better than the second division in Belgium. The clubs make a huge effort for foreign players and you just don’t run across the normal everyday problems.”
A new destination?
Nicoise has fulfilled his part of the bargain by plundering four goals in three games, including two last weekend to mark his return from injury. He has quickly found his feet in a league attracting more and more media attention and is already seen as a leader on the pitch, being named vice-captain and regarded as a key figure in a side that depends largely on its attacking verve.
"As only two foreign players are allowed per team, there’s obviously a lot of competition for the national team,” he added. “You have to play in the first or second division to meet the association’s qualifying criteria and that raises the level, especially for the young, local players. They depend a lot on foreign players to learn and improve, and that obviously gives us a certain status. But it’s easy to get used to that because the youngsters have a huge amount of respect for us. They follow our advice immediately.”
Since Nicoise touched down in Malaysia, meanwhile, two more French players have altered their compasses to make the same journey. What was previously a football outpost that barely registered has become a viable destination, and Nicoise hopes to lure more of his countrymen in search of peace of mind and a timely career boost.
“The market is becoming increasingly difficult in Europe, where there are so many pitfalls,” he explained. “When you’re trying to put a tough experience behind you, coming here is the best. When you love something, you want your friends to make the most of it.”