Sunday, September 5, 2010
A mirage in Kuwait
By Rizal Hashim
The seventh edition of the Asian Cup finals in Kuwait in September 1980 was supposed to be the apex of a memorable year for Malaysian football.
Six months earlier, the nation rejoiced as Soh Chin Aun and Co bestrode the soggy Merdeka Stadium pitch to qualify for the Moscow Olympics at the expense of 1968 bronze medalists Japan and South Korea.
But once the Malaysian Government announced they were joining the US-led boycott of the Moscow Games, the team landscape changed considerably.
When September came, the architects of Malaysia's road to Moscow, German coach Karl-Heinz Weigang and his assistant Mohamed Bakar, were no longer part of the team. Weigang, it was reported by the Press, was told to rest because of a heart problem.
Since the appointment of the national coach was made on an ad-hoc basis then, Mohamed, who guided the team through the qualifying campaign in Bangkok in May 1979, made way for Kelantan's Mohamed Che Su.
Key players such as Sabah duo, the lanky James Wong and the speed merchant Hassan Sani, were not interested in donning the yellow jersey anymore. Keeper R. Arumugam and burly centre-back Santokh Singh also pulled out, while Mokhtar "Supermokh" Dahari, who had an impressive tournament in the previous finals in Iran, had announced the first of his three retirements in late 1979. When met recently, Bakri Ibni, who netted Malaysia's first goal in the 2-1 victory over the Koreans which ensured the country's entry to Moscow, offered his take on the issues surrounding the pull-outs.
"There were certain quarters in FA of Malaysia (FAM) who did not want Weigang to helm the team. With him out of the way, some players lost interest. The German, mind you, had been instrumental in persuading James and Hassan to feature in the team during the pre-Olympics. But basically, Weigang had laid down the foundations of the team."
Nonetheless, the team left for Kuwait with an almost unrecognizable attack. Many felt Malacca's Ramli Junit, Terengganu's Zulkifli Hamzah and Johor's Tukamin Bahari could not hold a candle to Mokhtar, James or Hassan.
In the rearguard, with his uncanny anticipation and elegance, Chin Aun was Malaysia's answer to German libero, Franz Beckenbauer. Aided by Jamal Nasir Ismail, Wan Jamak Wan Hassan, D. Davendran, Nik Fauzi Hassan, Kamaruddin Abdullah and Yahya Jusoh, Chin Aun held the defence together, while Shukor Salleh, S. Pusphanathan, G. Torairaju and Abdah Alif took turns to stoke the engine room.
Malaysia kicked off their campaign on Malaysia's 17th anniversary with a 1-1 draw against South Korea on Sept 16. The Koreans opened accounts through Choi Soon Ho in the 69th minute, but after two pieces of inspired substitutions, where Abdah and Zulkifli were sent in to replace Pushpanathan and Abdullah Ali, respectively, Ramli snatched a lastgasp equaliser off a corner from Shukor Salleh.
Barely 18 then, Soon Ho went on to become Korea's outstanding striker of his generation, gracing two World Cups and scoring in their 3-2 defeat to Italy at Mexico'86.
Next was the crucial tie against hosts Kuwait. Backed by a vociferous crowd, Kuwait opened the scoring through Fatih Kamel in the 20th minute only for Zulkifli to pull Malaysia level just before the breather.
Then controversy reigned. Kuwait were awarded two penalties, both duly converted by their hero, Jassim Yacoub, in the 53rd minute and 77th minutes. Referee Henrique Andoza from Mexico pointed to the spot the first time after Bakri was adjudged to have pushed Kameel, while Chin Aun was deemed the guilty one for fouling Faisal Al-Dakheel.
After the match, Mohamed Che Su vented his anger at the referee, claiming that Kuwait "had more than 11 players". Days later, thanks to goals from Abdah and Tukamin, Malaysia bounced back with a 2-0 win over the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Then allegations of interference from assistant team manager R. Ramalingam surfaced when Malaysia were held to a 1-1 draw by Qatar.
Malaysia needed to win by a big margin but in a bizarre decision, Chin Aun did not start, coming off the bench later to play in attack. "It was certainly a perplexing decision. What I remember was confusion, my fitness and the heat of Kuwait. It was like standing beside a furnace. I was not fully fit, according to the team management, so they wanted me to play in the second half against Qatar," said Chin Aun.
The draw denied Malaysia a place in the semi-finals as South Korea topped the group with seven points, followed by Kuwait, two points adrift. Malaysia's Arabian adventure ended with a record of 1-2-1 which earned them four points. It was Malaysia's last appearance in the continent's most prized title until the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) picked Kuala Lumpur in 2003 as one of four countries to stage the 2007 edition.
Midway through the tournament, Iraq attacked Iran. The Iranians were severely affected as they crumbled at the semi-final stage, while Kuwait won 2-1 to advance to their second successive final.
Coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Kuwaitis went on to beat South Korea 3-0 in the final, courtesy of Al-Dakheel's double and Al-Karam.
(Published in The Malay Mail on April 7, 2007)