The accursed 30-year pit where Malaysian football languishes
By : Azmi Anshar
DEWAN RAKYAT, March 5, 2009:
ON THE GLORY night of April 6, 1980, when Malaysian football was throttling thunderously, the national team’s talented left winger Hassan Sani conjured a menacing counter attacking run into the South Korean flank, followed with great intent by striker James Wong, both of Sabahan extract, but they carried their team’s effervescence and all of Malaysia’s hopes.
Hassan, while gliding on the flanks in a pace so furious that it caught the Korean rearguard flatfooted, hung on to the ball long enough to detect the perfect moment to release the ball to the advancing James Wong, and then it was back to Hassan, and when Hassan tapped the ball back to James again, Wong committed in memory the most memorable sidestep in Malaysian football history with the a kind of New Age calmness.
First, James rounded an advancing Korean defender but Wong easily left him for dead. Then he confronted a second defender but Wong shimmied a body movement so fluent that the Korean was fooled into expecting a thunderbolt, thus uselessly committing himself to a full body block. However, James teasingly pulled the ball back when literally everyone, the TV commentator in particular, pleaded violently for him to take a shot. James quickly evaded the Korean centreback now frozen with a horror look on his face, glanced for a split second at the gaping Korean goal as the keeper rushed out and in that continuum of time-space nanoseconds, found the sweetest spot to stab the ball into the Korean net. GOOAAAALL!
And a 2-1 winning lead that endured a feisty but impotent Korean retaliation right until the final whistle, confirming more crucially Malaysia’s qualification, for the second time in the nation’s history, to the Olympics.Now savour that immortal 20-second Hassan Sani-James Wong beautiful game combination that led to that second and most important goal ever scored by Malaysia because it was a historic and definitive moment that hoisted the country to actual world football glory.
Now breathe out and ruminate that moment, for it was also the first nail to the coffin of Malaysian football’s near-terminal existence. Malaysian football is not dead, at least not yet, but it emanates this wraithlike mien.
What happened to Malaysian football after that cathartically celebrated James Wong goal? Was 1980 and the years on jinxed? That James scored a profound goal but an ugly black cat deflected the ball into the net? That the players, managers and associations went into laurel resting, thinking that the steam from the 1980 moment was enough to float them to future victories?
Perhaps the first nail that thumped through some bad mojo came after Malaysia boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet’s invasive misadventure into Afghanistan, thus depriving James, Hassan, skipper Soh Chin Aun and his centreback partner Santokh Singh, Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam & company, the exposure and reward they deserve for being the best in Asia for that honeyed moment in time.These players were so good and such household powerhouses that they dominated the game for almost a generation.
Abjectly, such household profundity also died with the 1970s, lamented Bung Moktar Radin (BN- Kinabatangan) when he interjected repeatedly the winding-up on the Royal Address on sport issues by Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Wee Jeck Seng (BN-Tanjong Piai).
With animated indignation and a booming voice that seems capable of emulating Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hair dryer” treatment on Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes or Wayne Rooney should they perform terribly, Bung Mokhtar lambasted the dodgy state of Malaysian football, mocking the absence of “household names” and mocking more the inability of Malaysia to match our Asian neighbours’ rise to footballing power.
Bung Mokhtar also indicated his poor understanding of how Malaysian football could degenerate and deplete so depravedly that anytime there was a match, the number of fans could be counted with one hand.Bung Mokhtar may be referring also to what did happened over the decades - debacle after debacle after debacle so atrocious that it was pointless to tabulate or post-mortem them, all these high profiled failures in almost every tournament that the team entered, year in and year out.
By next year, you could dub it a 30-year curse. It was so bad that a miserable FIFA ranking of 164 was the best the team could muster despite the funding and facilities available. (Iraq won the Asian Cup under threat of war, terrorism and suicide bomb murder, so try to beat THAT!).
Wee put up a spirited defence of the FAM, which he stated was putting together a programme to revive football’s fortunes but Bung Mokhtar won’t have any of that as he launched into a tirade of FAM’s failure, cemented by the fact that the national team could not even beat Vietnam, a country he characterised as “once who couldn't even feed its own citizens.”Dr Tan Seng Giaw (DAP-Kepong) was more ruthless: he demanded that the entire FAM board be sacked but Wee reminded MPs that the Government cannot interfere into FAM’s affairs, to which Bung Mokhtar sneered back, suggesting that the football organisation had been floored by the weight of decades of tired excuses.
He dismissed the excuse of absentee sponsors as why football is languishing and directed the fault to poor standards, citing AirAsia’s willingness to sponsor Manchester United’s shirts because of the marketability of its brand, which was an excellent team.Bung Mokhtar can also weigh in on what was not available since then - a team of world beaters that could reprise what Soh Chin Aun and Co surmounted in 1980.
The dream of entering the first World Cup is as good as Malaysia fielding representatives in any of the big four English Premier League teams of Manchester united, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. Zilch, that is! And Korea, which we beat regularly during those mercurial years, can boast of Ji-Sung Park as a Red Devils regular.
The reasons for the massive decline appear to be manifold::: loss of mega sponsorships and by that loss of funding to buy and pay players, :: collapse of grassroots structure to pool young players, professional coaches who failed to make the difference (with the exception of Karl Heinz Weigang who managed the victorious 1980 team), :: match-fixing that reared into a full-fledged criminal investigations, and,:: the English Premier League’s seductive lure of fans so corrosive that local matches were scheduled on week days to avoid a clash of fixtures in the weekends.
At least these are the tangible reasons outlined by Khairy Jamaluddin (BN-Rembau) in his capacity as the Football Association of Malaysia deputy president. Startlingly, he proferred an extremely radical antidote to all the venom poisoning the national team. "If I have a free hand, I would suspend the league for next year," he blasted away in a surprisingly confessional Malaysiakini interview. "I will not waste money on the league. I would stop everything, tear everything down, and start building it back from the ground up.”
Good hunting on that.Khairy’s analysis appears to be luminously precise but that’s the half of it. The other half may have something to do with the idiosyncrasies of the Malaysian psyche, way of life, attitudes, traditions, stigmatic notions of sports, even Government socio-economic policies and the hoary trend that politicians and the royal houses manage the association.
In the first place, schools, which use to be fertile ground for new talent, have shrunk in significance. Parents would rather herd their kids to karate, piano, computer and ballet classes, and tuition and more tuition, rather then dump their boys and girls into a soccer academy, or allow them the time to play football for fun after school’s out. Without parental support, professional football, or any professional sports, is a false perception.
Need proof of successful professional Malaysian athletes? Look at Nicol David (a dominant World No. 1 woman squash player, Shalin Zulkifli (world class bowler and winner of many international titles) and the Sidek brothers (Thomas Cup and All-England champs, and a bountiful of international titles).
They all excelled to world standards after years of solid parental encouragement, coaching, nurturing and push.With a loaded school syllabus that demands cramming and more cramming, just to pass much-vaunted examinations, who has time for a great game of football? Kids kicking around a football or whatever resembles a ball, either barefooted or with boots on can’t be spotted: they’d rather be at home playing a football game on their Sony Playstations!
What used to be football fields that act as a petri dish to germinate and nurture little M. Chandrans, Soh Chin Auns and Mokhtar Daharis have been hijacked by greedy housing developers staking their claims on valuable real estate as the next multi-million dollar duplex apartments, thus depriving an avenue for kids to simply kick a ball around.
No wonder futsal is more popular but it is played on high-rise roofs and small enclosures - there’s no real prestige, money and glamour in this peripheral game.
And the footballers themselves? A pampered lot, the ones who could have made a name for themselves, with no real conviction to stay abroad for a stint with minor European clubs and, if history and recent reports infer, a bribable lot who nonchalantly throw away games for a measly slice of the bookie’s dirty moolah.
And then there are the shrinking violets who can’t meet the demand for steeliness, of players who put their heads where others don’t even dare put their feet. Our footballers, unlike the Vietnamese, are no longer a hungry bunch.
Let’s give Khairy’s radical make-up a once over: the suspension of the league is doable with grit and enough political will, but how would KJ persuade resentful parents, Playstation-addicted kids and land-grabbing developers from giving the game its much-needed resuscitation?
If Khairy can tackle these three stumbling blocks, re-create a brand new Malaysian team with World Cup potential and at the very least, win something…anything!
Then football fans can rejoice and, who knows, endorse him as the next future FAM president-cum-Prime Minister of Malaysia.