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The national team at the Merdeka Tournament in 1993.

When the 1994 World Cup took place in the USA, it was a tremendous accomplishment for FIFA after successfully bringing the world’s number one sport into a country adamant that ‘football’ was a game patterned by men in helmets and shoulder pads. It was Year Zero for the original game of football in the United States, as the 1994 World Cup would determine if the sport would continue to exist and grow there.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, 1994 also marked Year Zero for the local football scene. The year witnessed a dark moment in football, when corruption spread among domestic league players. A nationwide sting and cleanup operation by FAM, supported by the police and the Anti Corruption Agency (now known as MACC), saw 21 players sacked, 58 players suspended and 126 players questioned over charges of accepting bribes. Some of the players (including those that had donned the national jersey) were Azizol Abu Haniffah, S. Silvarajoo, P. Ravindran, Saziman Ismail, Aziz Azizan, Adnan Ibrahim, Lim Say Hoe, Chong King Kong, K. Sathiaselvam and Wong Kow Fou.

Like how an asteroid slammed into the Earth millions of years ago to wipe out the dinosaurs, the ‘asteroid of corruption’ wiped out Malaysian football, and brought us back to Year Zero.

Signs of rot were seen much earlier, especially during the 1993 SEA Games in Singapore, when Malaysia, for the second consecutive time, was removed early from group stage. Later, at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, Harimau Malaya as per usual packed their bags and came home early. The 1995 SEA Games in Thailand again saw the early exit routine revisiting Malaysia at group stage, which led to the nation’s football standard being relegated below Thailand or Singapore, and more on par with the Philippines or Brunei.

 

The ‘asteroid of corruption’ wiped out Malaysian football, and brought us back to Year Zero.

 

At the 1996 Asian Cup qualifying, although opportunities abounded for Malaysia to emerge as champions of Group 4 — which included Indonesia and India — Harimau Malaya continued to disappoint Malaysians.

The failures kept on coming. Prior to 1994, Malaysian football was already on the decline due to the dearth of competent players, unlike in the 70s and 80s. Post 1994, when corruption began to spread, the lineup that was left consisted only of those who’d never qualified to don the national jersey. The outcome: a Malaysian football squad that was not only ‘easy prey’ for all Southeast Asian teams, but for most other Asian teams too.

During the 1995 Merdeka Tournament, fewer than 1,000 Malaysian supporters showed up at the Merdeka Stadium. This was a far cry from previous editions of the Tournament that saw tens of thousands in support of the national team. The 1995 edition also marked the death of the Merdeka Tournament, Asia’s oldest football championship and once regarded as one of the most prestigious.

Claude de Roy
Claude de Roy coached Malaysia from 1994 to 1995.

In its effort to revive Malaysian football, FAM took on the services of French coach Claude Le Roy, purportedly a football genius and perhaps as good as Arsene Wenger. To expose the players to international standards, cooperation was formed with cigarette manufacturer Dunhill to organize the Dunhill Cup in 1997, alongside other efforts to woo Malaysian supporters back to the stadiums.

But the union of Claude Le Roy and FAM was not destined to last. After being disappointed with the readily available players and deciding to go deep into villages in pursuit of undiscovered talents, Claude finally resigned as coach after the 1995 SEA Games campaign ended catastrophically for national football. It was indeed a sad episode, as Le Roy lasted less than 2 years despite the lucrative pay he received for his coaching services, the bulk of it undoubtedly from Dunhill’s coffers.

But on the other hand, the 1997 Dunhill Cup can be considered a success. Firstly, Malaysia reached the semi-finals before narrowly losing to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Malaysia’s coach was local boy Wan Jamak Wan Hassan. Secondly, the Cup saw the return of tens of thousands of supporters to Merdeka Stadium. Thirdly, FAM registered a gross profit of RM700,000 from ticket sales. China emerged as the champion of the inaugural Dunhill Cup, after defeating Bosnia-Herzegovina 3 – 0.

 

It came as no surprise when Wan Jamak was once again tasked to helm Harimau Malaya for the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign.

 

The 1997 Dunhill Cup was held in February. Its main goal, besides to fill FAM’s financial coffers, was to prepare the national team for an important mission. The mission: None other than the 1998 World Cup qualifying for the Asian Zone, which was to take place in Malaysia beginning 16 March 1997. In other words, the Dunhill Cup was organized as a platform for Malaysia to experience matches of international standard.

Armed with the success of bringing Malaysia to the semi-finals of the 1997 Dunhill Cup, it came as no surprise when Wan Jamak was once again tasked to helm Harimau Malaya for the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign. In fact, Wan Jamak’s slew of records was not limited to just the Dunhill Cup.

Prior to that, the Johor-born coach, who once played as defender for Malaysia in the late 70s, successfully led the national team to clinch runner-up of the inaugural Tiger Cup (now known as the AFF Cup) in 1996. The success was especially notable as the line-up of players at that time consisted only of those not part of the 1994 corruption scandal.

For the 1994 World Cup qualifying, the Asian Zone was allocated 3.5 slots (3 automatic slots, and half-a-slot for the play-off between AFC and Oceania). The increase in slots for the Asian Zone was relative to the increase in the number of World Cup participating teams from 24 to 32. It did not however have any effect on Malaysia, given the state of national football at that time. Plus, the 1998 World Cup qualifying was to see 36 national teams in the Asian Zone.

Malaysia was nominated into Group 1, together with its old adversary Saudi Arabia and two newcomers, Bangladesh and Chinese Taipei (or Taiwan). The first round of matches was to take place in Kuala Lumpur, while the second round was scheduled for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

1996 Tiger Cup. Photo courtesy of Chedinsphere.
1996 Tiger Cup. Photo courtesy of Chedinsphere.

FAM opened the doors of the central training camp on 5 May at Universiti Putra Malaysia, and appointed former national player Datuk Dell Akbar Khan as Team Manager. Among the players participating in the camp were goalkeeper Muadzar Mohamed, twin defenders Faizal Zainal and Khairil Zainal, midfielders Rizal Sukiman, Yap Wai Loon, and K. Sanbagamaran, while playing forward as strikers were Rosdee Sulong and Ahmad Shahrul Azhar.

These players were new faces never shortlisted for the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign, and were confirmed to be corruption-free by the ACA.

Meanwhile, on the veteran front, Wan Jamak still had the opportunity to engage the services of Khairul Azman Mohamed for goalkeeping duties and Azman Adnan for frontline. Zainal Abidin Hassan, already 34 years old, was called for training but as a sweeper instead of striker. These three players were the only veterans from past campaigns, signifying how badly affected the national team was as a result of the 1994 corruption scandal.

“In past qualifying campaigns, I was inexperienced, but now, I find myself a senior player. I have to play well and guide the younger players,” said Khairul Azman Mohamed, and Zainal Abidin Hassan echoed his thoughts.

“The young players, despite not having much experience, have shown their capabilities in donning the national jersey,” added Zainal Abidin, who seemed very confident of his new teammates.

Wan Jamak’s primary backup was a trio of midfielders consisting of Yap Wai Loon, K.Sanbagamaran, and Rizal Sukiman. The trio displayed a solid performance in the Dunhill Cup, where K. Sanbagamaran himself scored two goals in a match against Finland. On top of that, K. Sanbagamaran stood out as Harimau Malaya’s leading scorer during the 1996 Tiger Cup with six goals, earning him the nickname Sanbaman.

Despite having a highly efficient midfield, Wan Jamak was faced with the issue of a wanting strike force, which only had Azman Adnan as an experienced striker.

Rosdee Sulong had yet to display a firm performance, while the skills of Suharmin Yusof, Che Zambil Ahmad and Ahmad Shahrul Azhar had yet to be tested. In reference to the words of Wan Jamak, “our national team at this time lacks a clinical finisher”.

 

The 1998 World Cup qualifying match created its own history when FAM decided to ditch the Merdeka Stadium, and in its place chose the new Shah Alam Stadium.

 

The 1998 World Cup qualifying match created its own history when FAM decided to ditch the Merdeka Stadium, and in its place chose the new Shah Alam Stadium, at that time the largest and most modern in Malaysia. Approximately 20,000 spectators attended the Malaysia – Bangladesh match, but not all of them were Malaysian supporters. Also making up the crowd were many Bangladeshi supporters, as Malaysia was experiencing an influx of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

Most Malaysian supporters were expecting an onslaught of goals against the team of a nation that was more focused on cricket than football. However, its less-than-sharp offensive line haunted Harimau Malaya.

In the beginning, Wan Jamak chose to pair Azman Adnan and young striker Che Zambil Ahmad. But only 20 minutes into the game, Che Zambil had to be taken off the pitch and replaced by Rosdee Sulong. Malaysia found its rhythm again and Azman Adnan unleashed his first goal from a distance of 25 meters past the opponent’s goalkeeper, Md Ponir, at the 43rd minute. The position remained until an opportunity presented itself at the 80th minute when Idris Karim converted the ball that bounced off Azman Adnan’s try into Harimau Malaya’s second goal. Despite defeating Bangladesh 2 – 0, it was not a performance to be proud of for Malaysia.

“We are not satisfied,” Datuk Dell Akbar Khan briefly commented. The only news that provided some consolation for Malaysia was when Saudi merely managed to defeat Taiwan 2 – 0 as well in another match. Malaysia’s second match was against Saudi, and the match was to determine the true capabilities of the national team in the 1998 World Cup qualifying. Most were disappointed after witnessing Malaysia’s win over Bangladesh, who was considered no match for the national team. But their next opponent the Saudis were in a higher class of football compared to Malaysia, what more as 1996 Asian Cup champions.

Due to that, Wan Jamak did a massive reshuffle. K. Sanbagamaran and Rizal Sukiman, who were both deemed ineffective in the match against Bangladesh, were dropped from the team. In their place Idris Karim, who scored the second goal against Bangladesh, was paired with Roslan Rahim, playing for the first time for Malaysia. Only 20 minutes into the game, in a repeat of previous occurrences, Wan Jamak was forced to take Roslan Rahim off the pitch after a lackluster display of skills. M. Chandran was quickly brought on to the pitch to take Roslan’s place.

In front of 25,000 spectators, Malaysia seemed to concentrate far too much on defending. Credit was due to the pony-tailed goalkeeper Khairul Azman Mohamed, who brilliantly denied eight sharp attempts by the Saudis. Main striker Azman Adnan’s performance began to wane after his co-striker Suharmin Yusof had to be taken off the pitch, relieved by Che Zambil Ahmad.

Up to the closing whistle, both teams were tied at 0 – 0. Nevertheless, the spectators rose and gave a standing ovation to the national team, despite their lack of attacks, for their superb defending in denying any goals by the 1996 Asian Cup champions.

This is an excerpt from the book How Malaysia Never Reached The World Cup: Harimau Malaya’s 40-Year Chronicle of Failure by Lucius Maximus, published by Fixi Mono. You can buy the book here or in all good bookshops. 

CORRECTION: The original article stated that “Wan Jamak’s primary backup was a trio of defenders consisting of Yap Wai Loon, K.Sanbagamaran, and Rizal Sukiman.” This has been corrected to “trio of midfielders”.