PETALING JAYA: There’s a lump in Bahwandi Hiralal’s throat when he speaks of his teammates from Malaysia’s 1972 Olympic football team.
“One by one, they’re passing on, there’s only a few of us left,” the former midfielder told FMT.
At the Munich Olympics in 1972, Bahwandi and teammates became the first Malaysians to ever play football at the Olympic finals.
Some 48 years later, they remain the only Malaysians to have done so. Another squad qualified in 1980 for the Moscow Olympics but missed out because of a boycott of the summer games that year.
The names of many of the 1980 squad are well known even to younger Malaysians, but Bahwandi, Lim Fung Kee and Rahim Abdullah and comrades are relatively unknown.
“I think it is just bad luck that we did not get recognition. I think that in 1980, the fervour was there because we won on home soil to qualify.”
Still, Bahwandi, a former police officer said the fact remained that the 1972 squad also qualified for the Olympics, including notching a victory against the USA.
Former national striker James Wong, who scored the winning goal to take Malaysia to the 1980 Olympics, is among those who have voiced disappointment that the members of the 1972 squad did not receive the same level of recognition.
“Even if the country gave us some recognition now, what about those who have passed on? They all had wives and children, what about them?” said Bahwandi.
On how he would like the team to be recognised, Bahwandi said a book on their exploits, at a time when there was no such thing as a professional footballer in Malaysia, would be nice.
“I’m not asking anything of anyone, no one cares about us,” he said.
Hong Kong-based Lim said they do not enjoy any status in the Football Association of Malaysia.
“Those days, we would have a player’s pass, so we can attend matches. Now if I want to watch Malaysia play what do I do? Buy a ticket? I honestly don’t know.”
Lim said the players of the past were not full-time footballers and played only for the nation.
“We felt pride wearing the national jersey. To me, I don’t have any expectations of being recognised now, I don’t see the point in asking for recognition.”
He said he was sad to see his former teammates, who were suffering from ill-health like Namat Abdullah who is battling cancer.
“It will be nice to get some recognition, but its more important that the welfare of the former players are taken care of, to me that will be recognition enough.”
Rahim, who also played in midfield, said while the squad returned from Munich to a heroes’ welcome, their exploits were never highlighted as much as the 1980 team.
“ After we qualified, we dreamt of the day to step on that pitch and when we came home, there was an open motorcade which took us to Datuk Harun Idris’s home,” he said. Harun, then Selangor menteri besar, was team manager of the 1972 squad.
Rahim said he believed the members of the squad deserved a Datukship as few have reached that level.
After retirement from active football only a few members of the 1972 squad were given the opportunity to be part of the national team setup.
“Many of us were forgotten. Now that our football standards have dipped, I feel our experience should be utilised, like for scouting new talent. We still want to serve the country, we don’t even need to be paid, we’d do it for free, just involve us,” he said.