Thirty-six years later, former Malaysian football striker James Wong said he still feels the heartache of having to miss out on the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia. He was part of the historic national football team that beat South Korea 2-1 to qualify for the Olympic Games that year.
Wong, 63, scored the winning goal in the nail-biting qualifying game.
“I’m still bleeding. I’m not happy. Every time I watch an Olympic opening ceremony event, it saddens me because I wish I was there,” he said.
Malaysia had to pull out from the Olympics due to the boycott against the (then) Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. Despite the sad outcome, Wong and his teammates are rightfully proud to be the 1980 Malaysian football team that qualified for the Olympics.
Their journey to the Olympics is the subject of Harimau Malaya 1980, a 90-minute documentary by Astro. Produced by Basir Siswo (A Leader’s Legacy: Tun Abdul Razak and Kami Anak Malaysia), the documentary reunites players like team captain Datuk Soh Chin Aun, defender Santokh Singh, striker Wong, forward Hassan Sani, midfielder Haji Bakri Ibni and coach Karl Heinz-Weigang to share their stories.
“Coming together for this documentary brings back a lot of memories for us. We remember how we became friends, how we worked together towards one goal. It’s something that we could never forget,” a beaming Soh said.
As for late goalkeeper Datuk R. Arumugam who died in 1988, his story will be told by his wife Datin Maria Selvie who is featured in the documentary. She was proud of Astro’s effort and was also touched by how the documentary reunited her with her husband in some way.
“I don’t have my husband’s winning jersey with me as it’s being kept at the museum. When Astro gave me the chance to touch his jersey, I was sobbing. After so many years, I never thought I’d be able to feel it in my hands again,” she said.
Narrated by famed sports commentator Datuk Rahim Razali, Harimau Malaya 1980 also has OlaBola director Chiu Keng Guan onboard as a special adviser.
“Their story inspired me to make OlaBola,” Chiu said during the launch of Harimau Malaya 1980 in Kuala Lumpur. Astro chief operating officer Henry Tan said the project was initiated six months ago with the goal to tell “the story behind the story”. He shared that is was challenging to work against a tight deadline. So much so that Astro’s struggle was parallel to the subject of their documentary.
“Soh and his teammates said what we were going through reminded them of the hardship they faced towards qualifying for the Olympics,” Tan recalled with a laugh.
Basir wanted to produce a documentary with emotional impact and compelling storytelling.
“It’s like a movie. In my head, there is a main plot. Then subplot. There’s joy and funny moments. Then there’s also a bad guy,” Basir said.
One of the biggest challenges was getting graphic materials and archive footage to help visualise the players’ recollection of the events in 1980. He wanted to replay every important moment from the team’s journey for viewers.
“We only have a black and white visual of the qualifying game from Hassan who has a copy in VCD format. We were quite upset when we couldn’t find any original footage. The party responsible for the original footage had lost it.”
Basri travelled to South Korea and even looked through archives in Singapore for the footage. Nothing came up from his search.
Finally, he decided to ask the players themselves to re-enact moments from the qualifying game in Stadium Merdeka.
“I call it reality re-enactment. Let the real people replay the story. If I use actors then it would just be like OlaBola.”
Football jerseys and boots were specially made for the players for the re-enactment.
“We wanted them to get the mood, like it was the actual game night from 36 years ago. Some of them actually cried during the re-enactment. In the end, I was lucky because I managed to capture the emotions that I was looking for,” he said.
Harimau Malaya 1980 will also explore the subject of the late Mokhtar Dahari and reveal why the legendary striker pulled out from the 1980 national football team.
Basri shared that viewers will also learn a surprising fact about the boycott that abruptly ended Malaysia’s first-ever Olympic dream.
With a world ranking of 167 and a recent 3-0 loss to Indonesia in a friendly game, the current national football team is under intense public scrutiny. The release of Harimau Malaya 1980 seemed timely to rally support and raise positivity for our team.
Ultimately, Tan said the 1980 national football team proved that with determination and unity, anything is possible. “The 1980 Malaysian football team had to start from scratch. They had lost their star player. The odds were against them. But they made it all the way to beat South Korea and qualified for the Olympics. Their story is not a fairy tale.”
Harimau Malaya 1980 premieres Sept 16 at 9pm on Astro Arena HD (Ch 802) and Astro Supersports HD (Ch 831).