IT has been almost 50 years since Datuk M. Kuppan hung up his football boots.
But he is still getting VIP treatment wherever he goes.
The 78-year-old former international and coach no longer has official ties with any teams or associations.
But he still gets invites to officiate sports-related events.
Last month, Kuppan was the guest of honour at the launch of the SJK (T) Bukit Mertajam football academy.
It was a homecoming of sorts for the septuagenarian, who grew up in the nearby Kampung Baru neighbourhood.
“If it is 4.30pm, then it is time for football, regardless of the weather. We play until the sun goes down. Sometimes, we get scolded for returning home late. But the very next day, we will be back on the field without fail,” recalled Kuppan of his carefree school days with his friends.
“If God creates me again and I become a youth again, I still want to be a footballer.
“You get a certain thrill when playing in front of a crowd, especially the Merdeka Stadium crowd, where you have 40,000 or 50,000 people cheering you on. You are one of 11 players fighting for honour for the country and millions are waiting for you to succeed. And after you win, you cannot walk in the streets without being noticed ... everybody wants to shake hands or ‘belanja’ (give a treat).
“You cannot get that kind of feeling anywhere else.
“Even to this day, people still remember. The other day, I went shopping at Market Street (in Penang’s Little India) with my wife and we had a meal in one of the shops. I went to pay, and the cashier said somebody had already settled the bill. It was embarrassing, but it is good to know that people still appreciate former athletes like me.”
During his younger days, Kuppan excelled in both athletics and football at the Bukit Mertajam High School. But it was his selection to the Penang Combined Schools football team in 1957 that proved to be a life-changer.
“Our schools’ game was the curtain raiser for the Penang vs Selangor league tie at the City Stadium. All the schools team players were told to stay back and it was the first time I saw my idols M. Govindaraju, Edwin Dutton, Sexton Lourdes and the Pang brothers (Seang Teik and Seang Hock) in action. That day, I found my motivation to excel in football,” said Kuppan.
He joined the Penang Port Commission (PPC) as a clerk in 1958, and got a call-up for the Penang state team the same year.
“My first posting was at the PPC Prai office. I had to take the 6am bus from Bukit Mertajam to make it in time for work at 7.30am. I carried my training bag and boots with me to the office.
“I was released from work at 2.30pm so that I can attend the state team training. I had to walk to the jetty to take a sampan across the Prai river to reach Butterworth. From there, I took a ferry to the island and either the Air Itam or Perak Road public bus to reach the City Stadium by 5pm. After training which ends at 7pm, I take the same route back. By the time I reached home, it is normally 9pm. The next day, I repeated the whole thing.
“That was my life back then. There was no time for entertainment or to hang out. I had no complaints, and was determined to put in the hard work, toil and sacrifice needed to excel,” said Kuppan.
In his first season with Penang, Kuppan lifted the Malaysia Cup.
That same year, he also earned a call-up to the national team who went on to win the Merdeka Cup.
He represented Malaysia for eight years until 1965, and featured in 10 seasons for Penang before injury forced him to retire in 1967.
Once his playing career was over, Kuppan turned to coaching and helmed the national team from 1972-78. Malaysia lifted the Thailand King’s Cup trophy twice in 1975 and 1976 and also the Merdeka Cup in 1976 under his tenure.
As coach of Penang (1972-74), he led the islanders to their fourth Malaysia Cup title in 1974. It remains the state’s final triumph in the country’s oldest football competition.
“The year 1958 holds special memories for me. I made my debut with Penang and won my first Malaysia Cup. I got the national team call-up, and my career just took off after that.
“The highlight of my playing career was featuring with greats like Dutton, Lourdes, Ghani (Tan Sri Ghani Minhat), Ariff Majid and others.
“As a coach, I had the privilege of coaching the best players of the era like Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, R. Arumugam, Shukor Salleh, Namat Abdullah, Isa Bakar and Ali Bakar. My relationship with my team-mates and players to this day remains solid. I value the friendship very much.”
Kuppan feels the current sad state of Malaysian football is caused by the importance given to monetary incentives instead of development and honour.
“I feel the present players do not value the honour of representing the country. They only think of financial gains. Most of the states recruit players and pay them more than what they deserve for dishing out mediocre performances.
“Every worker got to improve himself to qualify for better incentives and bonuses. It is the same with footballers. They need to perform better to earn more.
“But sadly, this is not the case in Malaysia. Right now, there is no attraction for local players to accept new challenges or be ambitious because they are already earning too much. The fans want to see individual flair and entertaining football but are being served rubbish.
“Back in my day, there was no money in the game. Everything was about passion. We were paid RM2 as training allowance with the state team, and RM5 for national training. I remember asking a team official once for a knee guard that cost RM5, and was told “Sekarang tak ada duit” (No money now). I still carried on playing.
“When I was the national coach, there was no special treatment for the star players. When the new players come in, they see the likes of Mokhtar or Shukor around and think, sure got no chance to play. So they expect to shake their legs and take it easy the whole week. When you ‘tekan’ (pressure) the stars first, the youngsters will be scared and work hard as nobody is spared from giving their best.”
After 31 years with PPC, Kuppan left to join a haulers’ company as a manager. He then moved to Equarater Sdn Bhd, where he is now the executive director.
“I wanted to retire a few years ago, but the company owners refused and said I could come and go as I please. I am working on my own time now, so it is fine. I am a contented man .... not rich, but living a peaceful life.”