PETALING JAYA: When the movie Ola Bola made household names of Malaysia’s 1980 Olympic football team, one member of the side rues the fact that the first Malaysian team to actually make it to the Olympic finals remain largely forgotten.
“I’ve thought about it quite often,” says striker James Wong of the 1980 team. “We got recognition in the press; years on, there was even a movie about us. The 1972 squad never got the same recognition we did.
“They had qualified for the Olympics when Malaysian football was still in its infancy. It was remarkable. As far as I can remember, I don’t think much has been done for that team.”
In the 1980 qualifying rounds, Wong’s heroic efforts in the dying minutes of a match against South Korea put Malaysia through with a 2-1 victory. But Malaysia eventually did not take part, because of a worldwide boycott of the Olympic Games, held in Moscow that year.
The 1972 squad were not only the first Malaysian team to qualify for the Olympic finals, they actually played in the tournament in Munich, though they lost against West Germany and Morocco.
Wong says he can’t help but feel sad when thinking about the treatment accorded to the 1972 squad.
“Perhaps we (1980 squad) were luckier and got more praise,” said Wong, who became known to fans as “King James”. It could have been due to the manner in which the team qualified, by beating South Korea with a goal in the final minutes, or that they missed out on taking part because of the boycott, or because of wider media coverage available then, compared to 1972.
Wong said he hopes Malaysia will remember the feats of the 1972 squad, which defeated the USA side 3-0 in what still remains as Malaysia’s sole football victory at the Olympics.
“Back then I was 18 and I watched them play on television, I was wowed, as a youth player you looked up to these guys at the Olympics, you felt proud as a Malaysian.
“They set the benchmark, you saw them and you just knew you had to be there (the Olympics), it fires you up to want to do the same or better.”
He said he was saddened to read FMT’s report about former national captain Namat Abdullah’s battle with cancer. Namat was a defender in the 1972 squad.
“I had the pleasure of playing with and against some of the members of that squad, I played against Namat in the Malaysia Cup when he played for Penang and I played for Sabah. They were really good players.”
Wong said he is unable to travel to visit Namat, who is based in Taiping, but keeps him in his prayers.
“It is important that we give them their due recognition for their great achievement. I salute the members of the 1972 squad. There are many things we can do, maybe a movie of their exploits even, but the bottom line is these are legends and people must not forget them.”
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