Tuesday, June 1, 2010

We were almost there

Missing the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain still hurts many of the players of the national football team of the 70s and 80s. Malaysia, who had qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, were just one step away from qualifying for the Spain finals but the team, led by skipper Soh Chin Aun, fizzled out rather meekly in the scorching heat of Kuwait at the 1981 Asian World Cup Qualifying finals when they were the top favourites.

Malaysia lost 2-1 to South Korea, 4-0 to Kuwait and drew 2-2 with Thailand. Kuwait finished top of the table with six points from three games to qualify.

But before the tournament Malaysia and South Korea were the fancied teams to qualify as they were the powerhouses in Asia at the time, while Kuwait, practically newcomers to the scene, were the dark horses because of home advantage and the weather.

As hosts, Kuwait played all their fixtures at night when the weather was much cooler while Malaysia’s matches against South Korea and Thailand were played in the noon heat.

Towkay Chin Aun recalled the pain of not qualifying very clearly and remembered the headlines of the day after the miserable outing.

"Oh you mean ‘The Kuwait Debacle,’" Chin Aun said at the Maxis Legends Press Conference held at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Sepang recently.

"It was a big miss indeed," said Chin Aun, leading the Maxis Legends panel of former centreback partner Santokh Singh and strikers James Wong and flanker Hassan Sani, who were all members of the team.

"That team to Kuwait was a good team. In fact, it was one of the best assembled with every chance of making the World Cup," said Chin Aun.

"But sadly we did not perform to our true capabilities. It was disappointing for all of us. We just did not take off.

"I don’t want to make any excuses but the heat was different. You know, I didn’t sweat despite the burning heat there and, frankly, I tell you I just could not play my normal game. So it was not surprising to see the others suffering as well.

Chin Aun added : "We were at a disadvantage as our games (except against hosts Kuwait) were played in the hottest time of the day.

"I am just as puzzled today as I was back then as to why all the matches could not have been played in the cool of night at the lighted stadium which hosts Kuwait enjoyed. But we and South Korea had to play our matches, including our battle with the Koreans, in the afternoon.

"I think our president, who was also the AFC president, should have acted in scheduling the matches at the proper time." (Datuk Seri Hamzah Abu Samah was then Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president).

">Malaysia had actually a year earlier beaten the dominant Koreans 1-0 through a James Wong strike that saw them qualify for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But the joy was short-lived as it turned out to be a futile exercise – Malaysia joining the majority of other nations in boycotting the Moscow Games because of the Russian intervention in Afghanistan.

It was a blow to most of the players except for Chin Aun as he had the privilege of playing in the 1972 Munich Olympics.

"It was really a shame we couldn’t go to Moscow after all the effort. But it was a government, political (call it what you want) so we had to listen and stay back," said James who shared his frustration with the likes of Santokh and Hassan.

Upset and disappointed at missing the Moscow Olympics, a concerted effort was taken to give the Malaysians the best preparation for participation in the first ever World Cup finals.

"Target Spain World Cup 1982" began with one of the biggest campaigns ever undertaken to recall Mokhtar Dahari (now deceased), who was then in premature retirement, back to the national squad.

Mokhtar had announced his retirement from national football two years before after failing to make an impression from his comeback after undergoing a Menicus operation to his knee.

The huge one-month "Comeback Mokhtar" public campaign saw the prolific striker making his return to the national team and so began the adventure to Kuwait.

Malaysia had assembled perhaps the best team of the time, from goalkeeper right up to the strikers.For the first time the national team featured the "Super Mokh and King James" strike partnership – a combination that was never seen together before, although Mokhtar and James had been on the Malaysian football scene for more than 10 years.

But somehow they were not available for the national squad at the same time because of one reason or the other, either through injury or were not selected because of form at the time when the national teams were named for various tournaments.

But the much-hyped combination failed to click in Kuwait and was singled out as the main cause of the "Kuwait Debacle".

They were accused of keeping the ball and passing it among their own group of players. Chin Aun refutes claims that there were two camps within the team.

"I was the captain and I didn’t see it. I would never have allowed such a thing to happen. We played as a team and went down as a team. There never was two camps... We went down in the scorching heat and, let’s face it, losing to Korea was bound to happen as they controlled most of the match.

"For that matter, in my experience of playing the Koreans, I always thought we were lucky because whenever we beat them, they had actually dominated the proceedings.In most of the our matches we scored in one of the rare breakaways... just like when we qualified for the Moscow Olympics."

The squad disintegrated over the next two years. The first six of them were dropped immediately upon their return from Kuwait while others called it quits after having served for more than 10 years.

"I was sacked, not dropped and till today I don’t know why I was sacked," James Wong blurted out at the press conference.

Ironically, "the Kuwait Debacle" was also the beginning of the slide in the standard of Malaysian football. - Sun2Surf.

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