Flashback 1979! Sabah Was Virtually Unbeatable In The Malaysia Cup

The three new Sabah Datuks - Zulfikar Ahmad, James Wong and Hassan Sani. - Photo courtesy of a BorneoToday reader
The three new Sabah Datuks – Zulfikar Ahmad, James Wong and Hassan Sani. – Photo courtesy of a BorneoToday reader

BY COLIN FORSYTHE
COMMENT: Back in 1979, when Sabah played in its first full Malaysia Cup (as the Malaysia Super League was known as then), the much unknown team could have been dubbed the ‘Invincibles’.

They practically hammered all their opponents, Singapore and Selangor aside, by convincing margins, to end up second in the League, behind the Singapore national team. Who would not recall the scenes at the ‘Likas Graveyard’, as visiting teams went home after a drubbing. Or when a ‘biased’ referee ruled against the home side.

Then, the only name known outside Borneo Island was James Wong. People like Hassan Sani, Peter Rajah, Azah Ezrein, Zulfikar Ahmad, Michael Jainul, Karti Tukimin, Richard Barnes, Awang Sabtu, Malim Surat, Tony Wong, and many others, were noneties. But the team from Sabah in their familiar green jerseys, dazzled.

File photo of Hassan in action back in 1970.
File photo of Hassan in action back in 1970.

Many would like to believe that Sabah was then a three-player team; Peter kicks the ball high upfield, Hassan collects in, crosses into the box, and James scores. Or James would receive the ball and set up Hassan for the finishing touches. It seemed that way, but surely the other players were also involved.

Sabah’s other goalscorers included the likes of Tony, the elder brother of James, Awang, a teenage Razali Zinin (who stepped up and made a name for himself after Hassan earned a four-match ban once) and a speedy winger named Saidun Sungit.

There were scorelines of 6-1 (against Terengganu), 8-0 (against Sarawak and 11–0 (Perak). When all matches were completed, Sabah had 49 goals in 12 games. Covering the Sabah team which was then coached by Stanley Chew and managed by the late Stanley Augustine, I can go on and on about the players and the officials.

File photo of James, after his goal gave Malaysia a 2-1 win over South Korea in 1980.
File photo of James, after his goal gave Malaysia a 2-1 win over South Korea in 1980.

But that’s not what this commentary is all about. Surely, for those interested, Singapore were the League champions, the only side that bettered Sabah. In the Malaysia Cup semifinals, this was where Sabah’s inexperience showed. They met Selangor in the semifinals, and the mighty Red Warriors were hell-bent on preventing Sabah from making it to the final.

For reasons best left unwritten, Sabah lost the home match at Likas Stadium 3-1 and though a few days later they beat Selangor 2-1 in the return leg, it was not enough. Selangor then went on to beat Singapore 2-0 to win the title again.

James, Hassan and to a certain extent, Peter, all made it to the National A team. Others like Tony, Razali, Awang and perhaps one or two more, were National B team players. Then came the Moscow Olympics qualifiers – the trio were in the team coached by Karl Weigang.

No need to delve into the details, Malaysia ousted the more fancied South Koreans 2-1 with James scoring the winner, off a pass from Hassan. Sad to say, Malaysia were among those that boycotted the Moscow Olympics.

The late Peter Rajah served Sabah exceptionally well in his heydays between the posts and was also a state basketballer in the non-Chinese league. Surely he too deserved the PGDK.
The late Peter Rajah served Sabah exceptionally well in his heydays between the posts and was also a state basketballer in the non-Chinese league. Surely he too deserved the PGDK.

James, Hassan and Peter were part of that famous Malaysian team. And quite rightly, on Saturday, James and Hassan received the Panglima Gemilang Darjah Kinabalu (PGDK) which earned them the Datukship. The duo truly deserved it but I felt that Peter should also have been awarded the PGDK, albeit posthumously. State awards are given out during the Head of State’s official birthday.

Now, guess what, James, Hassan and Zulfikar and some others were spotted having Malaysians’ favourite brew – ‘teh tarik’ – at the popular mamak’s Salim Restoran the following day. And a little bird told me later that these chaps were planning a reunion of sorts. Yes, the 1979 squad.

Zulfikar, a quiet, soft-spoken guy played at left flank, and did what he was assigned to, had turned businessman after his playing days were over. He too was awarded the PGDK but definitely for other reasons apart from his football prowess. Zul was in town to attend the investiture ceremony Saturday morning. James and Hassan get their medals some time soon.

Datuk James is something like the protem chief in organising this reunion. They plan to play some friendly matches in Keningau, Labuan and Kota Kinabalu. James and Datuk Hassan are still linked with the Sabah team – as assistant managers.

If some people could do something about the 1980 Olympic team, then surely, the three freshly minted Datuks are on the right track to ‘revive’ the spirit of the 1979 team.

From the grapevine, some of the 1979 players are said to have fallen on hard times, along with players from other eras. Like Peter, some have passed on – names like Alinjiran Nulantan and Gerald Sweeney and others I cannot recall. Even Paulus Jimit is said to be bedridden in Tambunan where he used to work with the Public Works Department (JKR).

So if the three Datuks can do something about the 1979 reunion, perhaps they could go a step further and delve into the welfare of those veteran players of different years. And perhaps they could get more involved in the present state of Sabah football, which to say the least, is in an utter state of disgrace.

Hassan Sani, Soh Chin Aun, James Wong and Santokh Singh in this file photo taken a few years back.
Hassan Sani, Soh Chin Aun, James Wong and Santokh Singh in this file photo taken a few years back.

It would be great to see James and Hassan and players from that 1979 era, many pot-bellied, back in action again. They could get veterans from other teams, like Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, Samad Alipitchay (Singapore), Isa Abdullah etc to form a team and be their opponents.

And where better than to have that match – the upgraded Likas Stadium.

Kudos to Datuk James, Datuk Hassan and Datuk Zulfikar.

* Colin Forsythe started his journalism career in 1977 as a free lance writer with The Star, and arrived in Kota Kinabalu the following year. Colin was shown this photograph (see above) and asked if he could write a caption. He opted to do some justice instead. Having worked with several local, national and international news organisations, he is now semi-retired, and hopes soon to sell fresh young coconuts to keep busy, as he researches material for a book.