Ah, the good ol’ days. Will we, in Malaysia, ever see the likes of those heady days again?
The year was 1980. The nation was not that wealthy but we were rich in natural resources, bolstered by a burning hope for a brighter future and rich because we enjoyed a very special and unique heritage of multiculturalism in which there was much mutual respect and appreciation between the main cultural groups of Malays, Chinese and Indians and also amongst the other minority groups.
It was a Malaysia that many of us were proud of. And perhaps rather emblematic of the nation’s psyche and indeed the state of the nation at that time, was our national soccer (or football) team. 1980 represented the pinnacle of achievement for Malaysian football. It was the year that our ragtag team of part-timers shrugged off a couple of years of middling performance, rallied under a new coach, forged a strong sense of identity and defeated the much feared and favoured South Korean powerhouse in dramatic fashion. They scored the winning goal in the last 5 minutes of the match to win 2-1 and it meant we qualified for the Moscow Olympics. We even beat Arsenal and held other visiting professional clubs to a draw.
Unfortunately, the team did not get a chance to play at the Olympics as Malaysia joined the U.S. led boycott of the games in protest over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Yet, despite the disappointment, it did not seem to matter cause the country was filled with optimism that better days and greater achievements lay ahead for soccer team and for the country.
As it turned out, Malaysia’s fortunes in the beautiful game declined steadily since then. Our FIFA world ranking fell from a high of 75th position to 174th position; placing us in the same group as countries like Timor Leste which doesn’t even have any proper soccer facilities. Critics refer to the end of meritocracy, the rise of racism and political interference as well as corruption as the causes of the decline of the national team. Sadly, this seems to have mirrored what has happened to the country in general.
This year, a movie was released called Ola Bola which its director claims is “inspired” by the true story of our national team’s glorious march to Olympic qualification in 1980. In fact, much of the movie seems entirely true to the actual historical events. The three main heroes of the movie were Tauke, Ahmad Ali and Muthu who were quite clearly based on Soh Chin Aun, Hassan Sani and Arumugum – the real three Malaysian football heroes who also happen to be Chinese, Malay and Indian respectively. Many Malaysians enjoyed the movie because it reminded many of a better time when racial harmony was not only stronger but in fact held up as an example internationally.
Indeed, many urged Malaysians today to take up the message that Malaysia would be stronger if we were united despite our different backgrounds and not divided along racial lines.
A powerful message indeed and one really worth heeding but sadly, there is also a point of controversy. The movie changed the winning score of that game with South Korea from 2-1 to 3-2; perhaps for the sake of greater drama. But the movie also changed the identity of the person who scored the game winning goal. If the movie were to be true to history, then the character Eric (who is based on the real life Malaysian soccer hero, James Wong) should have scored the last goal. Instead, in the movie, Ali is the game winner; leading some to wonder if that decision was made so that a certain segment of Malaysian society would be more willing to watch the movie – which seems to compromise the anti-racist message of the movie.
Ah, Malaysia…..if only we could go back to that simpler, happier and more hopeful time. I miss it so.