Halcyon days of Malaysian football

Kuppan and Soh holding aloft the Merdeka Cup after winning the Merdeka Tournament in 1976.

Kuppan and Soh holding aloft the Merdeka Cup after winning the Merdeka Tournament in 1976.

THE Merdeka Stadium was the home of Malaysian football. But for legend Datuk M. Kuppan and his teammates of the 1960s, this historic stadium was literally their second home.

This is where the stars of yesteryear were housed to prepare for the prestigious Pestabola Merdeka, held to commemorate Malaysia’s Independence Day.

“The Merdeka Stadium was our home indeed. We slept on double-decker beds in the team’s dressing room. We washed our clothes there too.

“There were no training jerseys. They only provided soap powder and brushes to wash our clothes. We washed the stockings and singlets and dried them too.

“It was a tough life, but we had no complaints. We ate together at the stadium’s cafeteria upstairs. We trained and played the matches at the same ground. We lifted the prestigious Merdeka Cup there too.

“The beautiful thing was that we lived harmoniously – all for the love of the game,” recalled Kuppan, 79.

The Merdeka Tournament is Asia’s oldest competition, founded in 1957 and a popular battleground among Asian football teams.

Kuppan, from Bukit Mertajam, Penang, holds the distinction of having won the champion’s medal in the Merdeka Tourna­ment as both a player (1958, 1959, 1960) and coach (1976).

“These were the glory days of Malaysian football. The Merdeka Cup 60 years ago was well supported by the public and fans for the simple reason that only the best teams (senior teams) took part.

“The man responsible for the success of this tournament was our first prime minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was also the president of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) then. He made it clear that only the first teams should play here.

“Our national team was blessed with quality players during this era like Edwin Dutton, Sexton Lourdes, Abdul Ghani Minhat, Arthur Koh, Jalil Che Din, Stanley Gabriel, M. Karathu and M. Govindarajoo.

“I witnessed the inaugural Merdeka Tournament in 1957 – Hong Kong was the champion. But from 1958 we won the Cup nine times, finished as runners-up on eight occasions and as joint champions twice,” said Kuppan.

Although the players were all household names, they did not get five-star facilities compared to the luxury enjoyed by present-day footballers.

“Times were different then, but we didn’t mind at all. It was fun.

“Our coach Choo Seng Quee (1960-61) was a strict man. The players would report early for centralised training at the Merdeka Stadium to book our beds in the dressing room.

“There would be 10 players to a room (home and away dressing room). They checked in early to avoid sharing the same room with the coach.

“The coach had his own way of doing things. He did not like us to take afternoon naps, so he would do daily rounds to check on us. He also checked the bathroom from time to time to see if anyone had been smoking.

“At 9pm, it was lights out because we had to be up for training by 5am. There would be a break from 7.30am to 10am before we continued with the ball-juggling session at the stadium car park under the hot sun. This was what we went through those days,” said Kuppan.

As the national coach, Kuppan had the privilege of working with outstanding players like Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam, Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, M. Chandran, Jamal Nasir, Shukor Salleh, Ali Bakar, Isa Bakar, Wong Choon Wah, Namat Abdullah, James Wong and many others.

“The fans simply adored the Malaysian football team then. It was heartwarming to see the terrific atmosphere and full stadium.

“The team bus could not enter the stadium as the roads leading to the stadium would be jammed up, even with police outriders. We had to get down from the bus and walk.

“Those were the wonder years of the Merdeka Tournament. We had top-class teams like South Korea, Japan, Burma, Indonesia, India, Singapore and Thailand in the fray,” recalled Kuppan.

“Star players like Japan’s Kunishige Kamamoto and South Korea’s Kim Jae-han and Cha Bum-kun used to grace the tournament. But all these are just memories now.

“It is sad that we have lost the glamour days and all that is left are just fond memories.”

The tournament has not been held since 2013. It may well be the time to bring it back.