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One Man's Meat

Published: Saturday December 13, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday December 13, 2014 MYT 9:12:07 AM

Re-igniting Sabah football

A childhood passion is rekindled by the team’s new Senegalese captain, whose mantra is ‘talk, talk, talk’.

THE last time I was excited about Sabah’s football team was during their golden years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The state team had three national players – twin strikers, James Wong and Hassan Sani, and goalkeeper, the late Peter Rajah – on their side.

My parents brought me to the Likas Stadium so that we were part of the intimidating Likas roar. As a schoolboy, I verbally “abused” great national players like (the late Datuk) Mokhtar Dahari of Selangor, Isa Bakar of Penang and (Datuk) Soh Chin Aun of Malacca.

The golden era ended. And it was downhill for the Sabah football team. It got worse in 1995 when several state footballers, implica­ted in a bribery scandal, were banned from being involved in football.

If you asked me to name a Sabahan currently playing in the state team, I couldn’t name one.

Last month, my interest in the Sabah football team was re-ignited. My state signed Senegalese El Hadji Diouf, who made a name in the 2002 World Cup.

“Wow! An ex-Liverpool player. Wonder why he wants to play for Sabah? Will he make any difference?” I thought.

As a Liverpool fan, I was also excited that the club’s former striker would be playing for my state.

I am not the only one excited about Diouf playing for Sabah. On Nov 30, Likas Stadium was full of fans curious to see the footballer play in a pre-season match against archrival Sarawak.

Diouf didn’t disappoint. He came off the bench and scored. The friendly ended with Sabah winning 2-1.

On Thursday in Petaling Jaya, I had the opportunity to meet Diouf and George O’Callaghan, Sabah FC technical director and manager.

“Why did you sign up Diouf?” I asked O’Callaghan.

“We wanted a marquee signing. He is among the top five foreign players in Malaysia. We wanted to bring back the hype (to the Sabah football team),” he said.

“The hype is back. About 15,000 fans turned up for the friendly to watch him play. They have big expectations of him.”

How much of a difference Diouf will make to the team?

“On the first day he came for training, the standard and tempo of the team increased. Also the aggression. The players want to win,” said O’Callaghan.

Diouf, who is the Sabah captain, has also changed the mindset of the local players. “From accepting losing to losing is not acceptable,” said the Irishman.

Fifteen minutes into the interview with O’Callaghan, Diouf sauntered into the confe­rence room.

“How are you doing?” he said in a cheeky and friendly tone.

“Why are you playing for Sabah?” my colleague T. Avineshwaran asked. And my other colleague, Rashvinjeet S. Bedi, added politely a question, which if he was more straightforward would have been: “Aren’t you downgrading your football career by playing for Sabah?”

“Why not? It will be a good experience. I can play for the championship (in England) or in Dubai. The gaffer (O’Callaghan) told me that Sabah loves football and Malaysia loves football. Playing for a big team is nothing for me,” said the footballer who played for Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland, Blackburn Rover, Rangers and Leeds.

“But I will be building something in Sabah, a little team.”

On his reputation as a controversial football player (for example, in March 2003, the Liverpool player spat at Celtic supporters du­­ring a Uefa Cup tie at Celtic Park), Diouf said: “People talk but they have never met me. They don’t know who I am. There’s a saying in England, ‘talk is cheap, money buys the house’. I’m a normal person like anybody. I love jokes.”

Before he agreed to sign up for Sabah, Diouf said he surfed the Internet to find out more about the state.

“When the gaffer called me and talked about Sabah, I looked it up in the Internet and it was amazing and beautiful,” he said.

“The first things you do when you go to a new place in this world is look at two things – the weather and the place. The weather is similar to Senegal and the place is great – it has the best sunset in the world.”

“How’s Sabah?” I asked.

“It is like the place I come from in Senegal. The people there are proud, just like Sabahans who will say they are Malaysians but proud to be Sabahans,” he said.

The first word Diouf learnt was cakap, cakap, cakap.

“During training I saw the boys play, play, play but they don’t talk on the pitch. Football is about communication. We have to talk, talk, talk on the pitch. You have to talk to your mates, ‘man on, turn!’. Every time I tell the boys, cakap, cakap, cakap.”

I asked the Senegalese whether he had heard of the Sabah slang main kau burung.

“No, what is it?” he asked.

“It is something like ‘come on team, play well!’” I said.

“In England, we only say, ‘come on boys’ with a swear word,” Diouf said.

“What’s your favourite Sabah food?” I asked.

“I love fish like back at home. I like the spicy fish,” he said.

“What’s the name of the dish?” I asked.

“I don’t know the name,” he said.

“Is it curry fish head?” I asked.

“Yes,” said someone from the Sabah FA.

“Is it Krishna’s Fish Head Curry house?” I asked.

“Yes,” said that someone from Sabah FA.

“Krishna (the owner) is like you,” I told Diouf. “He likes to cakap, cakap, cakap.”

The footballer laughed.

“Is Sabah safe?” I asked, as recently a minister had said that my state was not safe for tourists.

“You can tell it is very safe as I walk alone (in Kota Kinabalu). People are very polite. They come and ask me for my autograph. They are very correct there,” he said.

“How about kidnapping?” I asked.

Diouf looked clueless and he said: “It happens everywhere. If it happens, it happens.”

“How about Sabah girls?” Rashvinjeet asked.

“I’m married. I’m happily married. And I’ve been married for 13 years and I have two kids,” said the rather amused Diouf.

The footballer said if he did well in the Sabah football team, he planned to live in the state for the rest of his life.

When the interview was over and we took photographs with him, Diouf said: “Sabah OK bah!”

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Philip Golingai, columnist

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