Where does fact end and fiction begin? When it comes to Malaysia’s greatest – and arguably, most heartbreaking – football story, the Asian Group 2 pre-Olympic football qualifying rounds in Kuala Lumpur in early 1980 is a tale of love and spirit for the country that has transcended generations.
The quest to qualify for the Moscow games, depending on who you speak to, has survived a mix of lucid and cloudy memories.
OlaBola, Astro Shaw’s Chinese New Year release, now showing in cinemas, has sparked curiosity and renewed interest in the story of the 1980 Malaysian Olympic team.
Heroes on the pitch, great football matches, a nation’s hopes and dreams, rollercoaster emotions ... the script was already written.
Soaked in bittersweet memories, OlaBola features fictional characters based on real players, people and events surrounding Malaysia’s epic Olympic (non)-journey, which took place during the months of March and April 1980.
The story on screen, despite real life revisionism creeping in, definitely has the same kind of golden-hour sheen to it.
It was an unforgettable period for the Malaysian national team, which had an eventful backstory, starting with shared champions honours with South Korea at the Merdeka Tournament in July 1979, Mokhtar Dahari’s winning goal at the SEA Games in Jakarta in September 1979 (retaining Malaysia’s gold from the 1977 KL games) right to Mokhtar announcing his retirement from the international game in November 1979, leaving the team with a “Luis Suarez” hole.
Preparations for the pre-Olympic football qualifying were bumpy, to say the least. Poor form and indiscipline in the camp kept making the back pages.
Malaysia getting whipped in the warm-up matches in late 1979 and early 1980 didn’t help. Particularly, nightmarish were the New York Cosmos and Red Star Belgrade’s visits, leaving us with 5-0 and 9-0 demolitions respectively.
Much credit to German coach Karl Weigang, who steadied the ship and worked the team into shape.
Santokh Singh quitting the national team in January 1980 and FAM’s threat to ban players from the Malaysia Cup because of their early “retirement” created added drama. Santokh did return to play impressively in the tournament.
Elsewhere, Sabahan stars Hassan Sani and James Wong made FAM wait until early March 1980 to join the final team list.
It was worth the wait – Hassan and Wong practically lit up the tournament. Other standouts included “old man” midfielder Shukor Salleh, goalkeeper R. Arumugam and captain marvel Soh Chin Aun.
But bigger issues were stirring. In January 1980, the United States proposed and led a boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the late 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Malaysia were part of the block boycott of nations.
The Star’s front page, dated Feb 11, 1980, splashed the news of then Olympic Council Malaysia president and FAM president Datuk Seri Hamzah Abu Samah announcing that Malaysia would join the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games in July that year.
Malaysia did go on to host – and, rather heroically, win – the qualifying tournament.