WCQ ’77: Singapore 1 Malaysia 0

Posted on July 19, 2011

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The Malaysians called it a robbery, a referee-induced dismantling of a national project. A time when one of the best Malaysia teams in history, with legendary names like Mokhtar Dahari, Santokh Singh, Soh Chin Aun and ‘Spider’ Arumugam at their prime, had the nation dreaming of Argentina and the World Cup but found themselves grounded in neighbouring Singapore.

In the bowels of the National Stadium, warring camps of victory and defeat. The Malaysian players sat in disbelief, white jerseys marred by the Kallang turf. Some wept. Team manager Bakar Daud and coach M Kuppan spat out recriminations and promises of retribution, then shrugged the press aside.

Forward Quah Kim Song hugs 'Uncle' Choo Seng Quee

To the fury of the Malaysians, a jester pranced; a Singapore fan had snuck into their dressing room, loudly praising Japanese referee Toshio Asami, the man who the Tigers held responsible for their downfall. He was ejected, before violence could be done.

In the blue corner, there were tears too. Coach Choo Seng Quee, that erudite scholar of football, found himself wet-eyed and struggling for words when confronted by reporters. And of course, there was that moment that became one of the most famous photographs in Singapore’s football history – forward Quah Kim Song in the patrician embrace of ‘Uncle’ Choo.

As Singapore and Malaysia prepare to clash over two legs of World Cup qualifiers once more, those of a certain vintage on both sides of the Causeway will find their minds drifting back to 6 March 1977. The night at Kallang when Singapore marked only the second time they had triumphed over Malaysia, the second time in 11 attempts over a decade.

The Malaysians came into the first round of qualifiers for Argentina ’78 as favourites to progress, along with Indonesia. The only team made of professionals in the mix, Hong Kong, was also reckoned a contender, while Thailand was also respected.

Grouped by critics among the top four teams in Asia at the time, Malaysia were the reigning Merdeka Tournament champions. Their B team had become joint-King’s Cup champions with Thailand. Under the leadership of Choo protégé Kuppan, this was a team in its prime. They had qualified for the 1972 Olympics, now it was time for the World Cup.

At the back ‘Spider’ Arumugam kept goal with elastic aplomb, ‘Towkay’ Soh Chin Aun swaggered through matches and his partner Santokh Singh was unflappable. In midfield, Wong Choon Wah pulled the strings with cultured ease, while Abdullah Ali’s freekicks and corners were as feared as those of Singapore’s S Rajagopal.

And while they sorely missed the injured Mokhtar Dahari, the Malaysian who perhaps deserved the most to appear on the world stage, the Tigers looked to have uncovered a gem just in time. That came in the form of James Wong, the 1.85m tall forward who had played professionally for Hakoah in Australia. Wong’s power and grace dovetailed nicely with the pace and nose for goal of his strike partner, Isa Bakar.

“Only the brave and those who ignore facts and figures would stake their money elsewhere than on the Malaysians to win the World Cup preliminary round group tournament.” Those were the words of the Straits Times ahead of the qualifers, pointing out the Tigers’ superior record over the teams involved.

The Malaysian media were equally ebullient. After a narrow 2-1 loss to Red Star Belgrade, they declared: “Seldom in the past has there been so much intelligent movement on and off the ball by a Malaysian team, such a determined and confident show of skills. If Malaysia can reproduce this form in Singapore, there should be little doubt about our ability to qualify for the next round of the World Cup competition.”

And Singapore? Choo was finally back in charge in October 1976, but none of the signs read well for the Lions. Cooped up in the dormitories at Jalan Besar Stadium, the players compared their living conditions to prison. They complained to the press that Uncle forced them to do weights for three hours in the sun, the day after a match.

Their results in friendlies were dreadful. A 4-0 loss to South Korea, a 5-0 hammering by Russia’s U23 side, downed 3-1 by Brno of Czechoslovakia and 4-1 by Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax. South Korea team manager Oh Wan Kon observed: “(Singapore) are not in the same class as Malaysia or Thailand”.

As the qualifiers drew closer however, the mood began to lift. The Lions moved into a hotel, with a Football Association of Singapore official acknowledging that it would help to ease the tension in the camp. After months of intense training, Choo pronounced his team “300 percent better in fitness and skills”. He also signaled the Lions’ approach to the tournament: “The team that makes the least mistakes, takes advantage of opportunities given and rises to the occasion will win matches. It’ll be survival of the fittest.”

By the time Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam welcomed the teams and declared the tournament open, Singapore was steeled for what lay ahead. And they showed resolve to claim the first three points in the group with a 2-0 win over Thailand, with goals from Quah Kim Song and Rajagopal.

Never mind that Rajagopal’s goal was a deflected freekick and that the goals aside, Singapore only managed to test the Thai keeper twice. Never mind that the Straits Times’ headline was ‘What a lucky start!’. Captain Samad Alapitchay was a rock at the back, the defender-turned-forward Rajagopal was a lethal cobra upfront and Singapore had their win.

The 2-2 draw with Hong Kong that followed lent conviction to Singapore’s cause. In the New Nation, journalist Jeffrey Low remarked upon “the thoroughness of Choo’s training and psychological preparation”, and concluded that “never have Singapore’s fighting spirit been so well put on exhibition in recent times”.

But for the nation to truly believe that its team, the team tipped to finish last in the group, could have a shot at winning it, the Lions needed to overcome the Tigers from up north – Malaysia.

The Malaysians had eased past Thailand 6-4 in their opening game, with James Wong netting four. But at 6-1, the ‘Towkay’ Soh Chin Aun had already mentally decamped to the post-match bar, and the Thais scored three late goals. Their second match was a 0-0 draw with Indonesia, so Malaysia needed to assert their traditional dominance over Singapore in the next tie.

Few would have bet against that, despite Singapore’s revived bite. In 11 meetings since the separation of the two countries in 1965, Singapore had recorded only one victory – a 3-1 win in Saigon in 1973. Choo knew that Malaysia were a superior team. But he also knew that his side possessed the tools for an upset: a fighting attitude, no little skill and the Kallang Roar.

And an upset it was, a 1-0 classic that left the Malaysians upset not so much by the howling Kallang crowd that booed their every touch, the swift incursions of Quah Kim Song on the wing or the strategic time-wasting of the Lions in the second half. No, their ire was reserved for Japanese referee Toshio Asami.

They cursed when he pointed to the spot in the 32nd minute, after Yahya Jusoh had caught a flying Quah. Never a penalty, they muttered. Malaysian anger was only stoked further when their midfielder D Devendran and Singapore defender Hasli Ibrahim both went down in the box, and Asami decided that Hasli’s sliding challenge had not touched Devendran.

There was Malaysian uproar minutes after Singapore’s opener, as Yip Chee Keong put the ball into the Singapore net from Isa Bakar’s nod-on. But Asami ruled that Isa had fouled Samad Alapitchay first. And as if to salt a wounded tiger, Asami was in no position to definitively see if Shukor Salleh’s shot had been carried over the line by Singapore keeper Eric Paine. Neither was linesman Ron Harries, on whose decision Asami relied.

On the National Stadium track, Malaysian team manager Bakar Daud struggled to contain his anger. “I am proud with the way my boys played,” he said. “Do not think that we are out of the running. We will enter the final, and if we meet Singapore, we will beat them. It was the referee who won the match for Singapore. We were robbed of victory.” The Tigers’ coach M Kuppan was succinct: “(Asami) wrecked a national project”.

The Malaysians would make a formal complaint to FIFA about the Japanese referee, even though Asami came out in the press to justify his decisions days later.

A classic of football it had not been, but Singapore had proven their courage. They had stared down a more illustrious opponent, a familiar but feared foe, and won through. The phrase ‘like men possessed’ is one of the great clichés in football, but Singapore’s match-winner Mohammed Noh revealed the almost transcendental state he had been in when he spoke to the press after the game.

“When the referee blew for the penalty, I knew it was going to be me taking it. I not only had to score it but I was being watched by 55,000 people in the stadium and many, many more on television. At once my whole body began to shiver. When I picked up the ball to place it on the spot, it was all done by instinct. I don’t remember doing it. I heard someone – it must have been one of our players – telling me to be calm. He was encouraging me. But his words were muffled, yet my hands and legs were still shaking.

“So when the referee blew the whistle for me to take the kick, I saw nothing in front of me. I just kicked, and I didn’t know whether it was a goal or not. All I heard after that was the crowd shouting. I couldn’t tell if the shouting was cheers or jeers. Suddenly I was awakened by my team-mates grabbing me and tapping my head. Only then did I realise that I had scored.”

The victory sealed Singapore’s passage to the final of the tournament, where they were edged 1-0 by Hong Kong. The Lions and the Tigers would meet in the World Cup qualifying round again in 1989, when Malaysia triumphed 1-0 in Seoul before a 2-2 draw at the National Stadium.

6 March 1977: Singapore 1 Malaysia 0
Singapore: Eric Paine, Hasli Ibrahim, Samad Alapitchay, Robert Sim, Syed Mutalib, Zainal Abideen, M Kumar (Gulam Mohammed), Dollah Kassim, Mohammed Noh, Quah Kim Song, S Rajagopal (Nasir Jalil)
Malaysia: R Arumugam, Yahya Jusoh, Soh Chin Aun, D Devendran, Santokh Singh, Shukor Salleh (Wan Rashid), Wong Choon Wah, Yip Chee Keong, Isa Bakar, James Wong, Abdullah Ali

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