Sabahans James Wong and Hassan Sani etched themselves in the hearts of many Malaysians after their match-winning exploits in Stadium Merdeka.
JUNG-MOO, ke tengah, Khalid, dapat kepada Hassan, masih lagi Hassan, cocok Hassan, Hassan, Young-jeung mengejar, kepada James, peluang untuk James, James, gol! Gol!”(“Jung-Moo to the centre, Khalid heads it out to Hassan, still Hassan, Hassan moves forward, Young-jeung chases Hassan, Hassan passes it to James, chance for James, James, goal! Goal!”)
Over three decades on, that commentary on YouTube still mesmerises this football enthusiast.
What a priceless experience it must have been for local football fans to watch Hassan Sani dribble past two players to set up that pass to James Wong – a move that led us to the 1980 Olympics!
Though the squad did not play in the Moscow Games due to the US-led boycott which Malaysia joined, both Sabahans etched themselves in the hearts of many Malaysians after their match-winning exploits in Stadium Merdeka.
In the past, South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries found our Malaysian side a fearsome force to be reckoned with.
Players like the late Datuk Mokhtar Dahari, Datuk Santokh Singh, Datuk Soh Chin Aun and the late R. Arumugam were top class individuals during their prime.
Mokhtar was lauded as one of the best Asian players during the 80s and he spearheaded one of the best teams in Malaysian history.
And while east Malaysian legends Hassan, from Labuan, and Kota Kinabalu-born Wong played in a squad dominated by Malaysians from the peninsula, Hassan says that they were not treated any differently.
“When I first joined the squad, I was a junior. There was occasional bantering between seniors and juniors in the squad, but we were all friends and we played as a unit,” he said.
That team had only one thing on their mind: to play for the national flag!
Hassan, 55, added that his teammates were encouraging – “They told me not to be shy as I was part of the team!” – and fondly termed them as family.
“I thank them for giving me the fighting spirit. Players like Chin Aun, Mokhtar and Santokh gave my game some much needed impetus,” he said.
Wong, however, did not know what to expect as joining a band of footballers from the peninsula was a new experience for him.
“However, the thought of representing the country was foremost in my mind. It was a case of mind over matter,” said the 61-year-old.
The team eventually bonded over shared meals, training sessions and off time.
“Friendships naturally fell into place. Before we joined the squad, a sense of intimidation was present, but it gradually faded,” he said.
Santokh said Wong and Hassan played for the national team because of their abilities and not because of their state.
“Hassan Sani was a good right winger and James Wong was a good centre-forward because he controlled the ball well and could make good passes,” he said.
“For the first two days (of national training), both of them (Hassan and Wong) felt awkward but gradually we made them feel they were part of the national team.”
Santokh said the national team at that time was totally 1Malaysia.
“From those days, our heart and soul were 1Malaysia.
“We played for the country and we loved the game,” he said.
During his time, Wong said football was not just a profession but a passion.
“I was passionate about the game. I just wanted to play football with a group of friends from my hometown and I wanted our team to be the best,” he said.
Hassan and Wong say they had the privilege of playing with the likes of Mokhtar, Chin Aun and Santokh.
“We had excellent players during my time. Not only did they have skills, but they also brought some sense of intelligence to their game.
“Football is not just about kicking a ball around and running aimlessly. It requires smart running, passing and positioning in attack and defence,” said Wong, adding that today’s players lack these attributes.
To Hassan, the 1980 side was a very spirited one complete with all the necessary ingredients for success.
“In those days, we played with high spirits and went all out during our games. We only thought about the flag and the national team, nothing else,” he said.
Even if they lost some of their games, Hassan was satisfied as the team did not give up and played till the final whistle.
He also had the same mentality for his Sabah state team.
Citing Wong and longtime Sabah goalkeeper Peter Rajah as his close friends, Hassan said Mokhtar was by far the best national player Malaysia has ever had.
“I learnt a lot from him. As for Sabah, James (Wong) is the best.
“We have played together for so long, and this started since we first played in the Borneo Cup,” said Hassan.
For Wong, many footballers during his time deserve a mention, and he had only fond memories of those he played with.
Asked about the current state of Malaysian football, both players said the national side has been in the doldrums for many years.
Happily, it has seen some improvement in the last two years, with Hassan lauding the Harimau Muda team for its fighting spirit that should inspire their seniors.
“In those days, we were better than Japan and South Korea. Now, they have improved thanks to their league.
“If we have a strong league, our players will improve too,” he said.
Wong, who is now in the entertainment business but still keeps in touch with Hassan, Chin Aun and Santokh, said there had been a slight improvement.
“There are signs of quality games being displayed by our national side, but we are not consistent.
“At the same time, I wonder if we have all the best players assembled in our current squad,” he said.
Hassan still plays football as he features with some of the former Sabah state players for the Labuan Veteran’s squad.
“Occasionally, we organise friendly matches and play against other state veteran sides. We still need to exercise lah,” Hassan joked during the phone interview from Labuan.
To him, discipline is the key ingredient for any footballer.“My father, Sani Tengah, was also a footballer. He told me that to succeed in life, you need to have discipline,” he said.
Asked about the future of Malaysian football, Wong feels that it may take some time to achieve better results, but added that the latest crop of players show promise.
“Most of them are paid footballers, and it’s their job to excel. If we could do well as amateurs, there’s no excuse for today’s professionals to not do the same,” he said.
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