Glory days of Malaysian football long gone

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An ardent football fan, Benedict Lopez is saddened to see Malaysian football in the doldrums. Where have we gone wrong?

Each time I watch European professional football, it always rekindles memories of the 1960s, when the annual Merdeka Cup football tournament captured the attention of the nation.

The tournament began in 1957 to commemorate our nation’s independence, and I always looked forward every year to what was then considered to be Asia’s premier football tournament. Thousands of other Malaysians also shared my enthusiasm for this tournament, which sadly died a natural death.

I used to pester my late father to take me to watch countries like Japan and South Korea play thrilling, nail-biting matches during the tournament. Often, no one dared to predict the result until the final whistle was blown.

Back then, Malaysia was on par with other Asian football powerhouses, who were our arch-rivals. It was an era when we walked tall in Asian football.

But where are our arch-rivals today, and where are we? Both Japan and South Korea qualify for practically every World Cup, while we struggle to beat even the minnows of Asia. What has happened to Malaysian football and where have we gone wrong?

Based on the latest Fifa rankings, we are ranked 159th out of 211 countries. Our highest ranking was in 1993 when we were placed 75th. Even countries plagued with problems like Syria and Palestine are now ranked 85th and 100th. Some less affluent countries like Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana can even produce world-class players.

Some soul-searching has to be done over our continually dismal performance in football.

Our players today get more perks and moral support than their contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet, we have failed to produce players of the calibre of Abdul Ghani Minhat, Edwin Dutton, Arthur Koh, N Thanabalan, Abdullah Nordin, M Chandran, Soh Chin Aun, M Kuppan and Mokhtar Dahari, to name a few. Back then, our goalkeeper Chow Chee Keong was ranked the best in Asia.

A few years before his premature death of 57 in 1985, Dutton remarked that it broke his heart to see Malaysian football in decline.

In the 1960s and 1970s, fans packed stadiums to watch even club matches. Some of our national football stars were nurtured through clubs like Hong Chin and PKNS. Even some of our schools like the Royal Military College, St John’s Institution, Victoria Institution and Malay College Kuala Kangsar produced good players.

Today, even state-level matches fail to generate as much interest. Could it be due to the advent of information and communications technology, the internet and computer games?

Or do we no longer have dedicated officials and sports teachers with a burning passion to serve the country, schools and football associations?

Or have we become so materialistic that everything is dictated by ringgit and sen?

As an ardent football fan, I am saddened to see Malaysian football in the doldrums. Who should be blamed? Should it be the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Education, the Football Association of Malaysia or state football associations?

Perhaps the cabinet should discuss this critical sports issue and direct the relevant authorities to draw up plans to place Malaysia on the football world map.

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Benedict Lopez
Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. During the course of his work, he covered all five Nordic countries. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its citizens with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime.

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