KUALA LUMPUR: The strong camaraderie shared between four football legends is one that extends beyond the pitch.
The formidable combination of former national captain Datuk Soh Chin Aun and his co-centreback Datuk Santokh Singh, together with twin strikers James Wong and Hassan Sani, helped Malaysia qualify for the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Off the pitch, the strapping young footballers were good friends and looked out for each other.
Santokh, now 66, said some of his best memories were when he was staying at the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) quarters.
“They used to have a dormitory system when we were staying at the FAM house. When you live in a dorm, you do almost everything together with your teammates.
“You take care of each man you know, and look out for each other’s wellbeing. This strengthens the camaraderie between us and it makes the bond we share different from others,” he related.
Now an ambassador for the Malaysian Indian Football Association, Santokh said he and his former teammates still encourage each other to this day.
“We keep the friendship alive and meet up once in a while. We see each other during major events.
“We are good friends and we don’t criticise one another. Once you start putting the blame on another person, the friendship starts to rot,” he said.
Wong, 64, said he knew that his decision to move from Sabah to the peninsula decades ago to train with the national team would not be without obstacles.
However, the man known as “King James” was determined to make his state and country proud at the international arena.
“We come from the East, and 90% of the players were from the West. But it’s all about integration, and learning to bond with other people.
“The chemistry between the teammates was good and we respected each other.
“When we play, we never think that we are from the East, West, North or South. All we needed to know was that we were playing for our country,” he added.
Wong joked that whenever he meets his former teammates, they would crack jokes about each other’s weight gain.
Soh, known as the towkay during his heyday, was the only player to have qualified for two Olympic Games (Munich, 1972; Moscow, 1980).
The 67-year-old recalled how his team worked together as a family despite coming from different backgrounds.
“We had a good friendship and understanding between us. That is what keeps people together.
“And we are friends until today. We play together in friendly matches organised by associations for former state and national football players,” he added.
Hassan, 59, said not having mobile technology during his time as a footballer brought him and his teammates closer.
“That time we didn’t have handphones. So we spent our time chatting with each other.
“We are still on good terms. We still contact and see each other during functions,” he added.
Hassan said he and Wong now assist the Sabah Football Association in training the state team.
They were both assistant managers last year.