KOTA KINABALU: After two decades in disgrace, one-time football hero Matlan Marjan is coming in from the cold, to the sport where he was celebrated for scoring two goals against an England team led by Gary Lineker.
Four years after that night, he and five others were banned for life in a corruption scandal, and banished into restricted residence.
It was worse than a death sentence, he said in a recent interview with FMT. “Even hardened killers get let off after 20 years,” he said. “For us, it was 21 years.”
It was a different story 28 years ago on a hot and humid June night at Merdeka Stadium, Kuala Lumpur, in 1991.
The air was steeped in despair. Malaysia were trailing 2-0 and hopes of notching an honourable scoreline were fading fast. Then up stepped a rising star from Sabah’s Kota Belud district, making his international debut against a strong England senior squad.
“It still feels like a dream … I have never imagined I would reach such a level or achieved such a feat. Actually, I didn’t even expect to play that night, let alone to score a goal as it was a star-studded Malaysian team.
“One of the England defenders had been taunting me – he called me ‘boy, boy’, trying to put me off my game – but I just didn’t care. I just tried to enjoy the game.
“I was lucky to score the two goals. When I returned to Sabah, I received a hero’s welcome … people still remember that match until today,” said Matlan, who is of Bajau descent, now aged 50.
In Sabah, Matlan had already established himself as a fan favourite then but on the national stage, questions lingered if he was the deadly force people said he was.
He did not disappoint.
He latched onto a clever backheel pass from Zainal Abidin Hassan before side-stepping a defender and unleashing a left foot shot past the goalkeeper.
The second goal showcased Matlan’s speed, instinct and reaction after he picked out and intercepted a lazy back pass to goal. He tricked the keeper to fall to one side before turning to the other and slotting the ball home.
“After that match, the papers were all about me for that one week. Even the reporters from England were asking about me,” he said to FMT.
Malaysia would lose the match 4-2 but Matlan became part of footballing folklore, along with the Sabah state team that were victorious in the FAM Cup in 1995, the first silverware for the side.
He went on to captain Malaysia against Brazillian outfit Flamengo – the first Sabahan to skipper the national team – but weeks later, Matlan was arrested along with five other Sabah football players on suspicion of match-fixing.
It came at a time when Malaysian football was rocked with a major corruption scandal, in which more than 100 players were detained for match fixing.
Matlan and the other five were not charged, because of insufficient evidence, but the Football Association of Malaysia slapped them with a lifetime ban from football, and they were also banished to other districts under the Restricted Residence Act.
Matlan was dumped in Semporna.
In April 2017, the six received a reprieve after FAM lifted the ban, with the approval of the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA, almost a year after 78 footballers in Peninsular Malaysia were initially pardoned.
Much has been written and documented about his fall from grace, how he felt the lifetime ban was like a “death sentence”.
While Matlan admitted the sentence was a national embarrassment, he found the most difficulty in facing Sabahan fans, and Sabahan people in general.
“Of course I am ashamed, but no one is perfect. However, we must not repeat our mistakes. People say God is forgiving but if we keep doing wrong, then that’s a real problem. I will not look back, only forward.”
Nevertheless, he can’t but help feeling for what could have been. His talent was such that even former Malaysian national coach Claude Le Roy believed the Kota Belud boy had what it takes to play in Europe.
A year after Matlan was sidelined by the corruption scandal, Sabah went on to become Premier League champions in 1996, the top-flight league at the time and were also Malaysia Cup runners-up the same year.
Coincidentally, Sabah ended 23 barren years this year by becoming the Premier League champs again and will take on the country’s top sides in the Malaysian Super League next season.
He can only look back ruefully on the days when he and Australian forward Scott Ollerenshaw made up one of the most feared strike partnerships.
“It’s such a shame,” Matlan said, reminiscing his glory days with Ollerenshaw and the Sabah team.
Matlan said two months after the ban was scrapped, he took his AFC ‘C’ coaching licence, which only allows coaches to deal with basic coaching practices, targeting mainly young players.
He is grateful that he is able to be involved in football again. “There was one point when I actually didn’t care any more if the suspension would ever end. Thank goodness for (former FAM president) Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim. If not, I don’t know what would have happened.”
He said he had coached teams and also played in friendlies during the years when the ban was still in place. “But I couldn’t be seen to be obvious doing these things. I was not able to get any kind of recognition, for instance when a team I coached won something.
“And sometimes, the referees did not want to officiate because I was playing or was involved in a team,” he said.
He added that he missed out on many opportunities to coach. “I really felt sidelined in spite of my contributions to the state. It’s true what people say, when we slip up and make just one mistake, 10 of the good things we did will be forgotten,” he said.
For now, Matlan said he will continue coaching young players, besides coaching local teams. “If we don’t train our kids, then our senior team will not be any good. The Sabah team now is also a result of the good grassroots coaching.
“And with the experience I have, it’s not something you are taught in the classroom. I have tasted the bitter, sweet and the sour, and only I can relate my experience,” he said. He thanked his wife for sticking by his side throughout.
What if the Sabah team comes calling? “I have no problem,” he said, before adding, “football is in my blood anyway and I am ever ready.”
He urged the FAM to conduct courses for higher football coaching licences in Sabah as it cost too much for Sabahan coaches to take the course in the peninsula. Many talented and capable coaches in Sabah were hindered because of this setback.