"MERDEKA Tournament, Asia’s oldest football competition, is set to be revived and probably rebranded next year!" my friend remarks excitedly over the phone. "This is as good a time as any to have another look at your photograph commemorating the tourney's first anniversary. Remember to bring it along to our weekly gathering this Friday," he adds, before hanging up.
My friend has been eyeing my prized possession ever since it was acquired by chance several years ago at the Kampung Berjaya flea market in Alor Star. It was bought at a bargain thanks to the vendor who thought that it was just another photograph. The large print featured the triumphant 1958 Malayan squad posing with then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and other team officials.
The tournament, held to commemorate Malaya's independence from British rule, was the brainchild of Tunku who also helmed the Football Association of Malaya (FAM) as President at that time. The national squad, together with seven foreign teams from Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Burma (now Myanmar) Cambodia, South Vietnam and Hong Kong converged at Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 31, 1957.
Throughout the competition, the teams tried their utmost to outdo each other for the coveted Prime Minister's Trophy that was made at a cost of 1,400 Malayan Dollars. Hong Kong emerged champion when it edged out South Vietnam by a 3-1 scoreline in the final round played on Sept 7, 1957. Malaya secure fourth place after they lost 2-4 to Indonesia in the third place playoff.
The Malayan team's defeat was primarily caused by their lack of cohesion caused by a very short centralised training period. Neoh Boon Hean was merely given a week starting from Aug 25, 1957 to train players who came from various state teams - Selangor (Ng Mun Keai, Edwin Dutton, Abdul Ghani Minhat, S. Lourdes, Joe Soosay, Govindarajoo, Narayanasamy, Tang Cheok Foo), Negri Sembilan (Mok Wai Kin, Mok Wai Hong, Rahim Omar), Perak (Wong Kong Leong, Liew Fee Yuen), Johor (Ong Kim Hock, Yip Chong Yin, Voon Shin), Melaka (Tan Ban Chuan) and Penang (Pang Siang Hock, Aziz Ahmad, Chua Poh Aun).
Hong Kong's triumph at the inaugural Merdeka Tournament came as a shock for all the competing national teams as its members were only made up of players from the British colony's Eastern Athletic Association Football Club. Their participation stemmed from the fact that the Hong Kong Football Association felt that the Merdeka Tournament wasn’t an official Southeast Asian football competition.
Aware of the fledgling tournament's weakness, FAM officials took it upon themselves to quickly improve and transform the Merdeka Tournament into a prestigious and internationally recognised football competition that would attract the participation of leading regional teams like those from South Korea and Japan.
In an interview with sports journalists in the early 1970s, Tunku spoke at length on the Merdeka Tournament. He attributed Malaya's disappointing performance in 1957 to inexperience in playing on the international stage. According to Tunku, the organisation of sporting activities prior to independence came under the purview of British officials who were satisfied by just organising local events.
One such example is the Malaya Cup, the predecessor of our modern day Malaysia Cup. The origin of this long standing local football league can be traced back to 1921 when the British Royal Navy battleship HMS Malaya called at Port Swettenham (now Port Klang), Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Port Dickson. During its brief visit, the crew played in friendly football, rugby, hockey, sailing and golf matches with local clubs.
Three months after that, the Chief Secretary of the Federated Malay States government received a letter from HMS Malaya's captain, H. T. Buller who offered two silver challenge trophies to be competed for in football and rugby as tokens of his gratitude for the warm reception extended to him and his crew.
The generous offer was duly accepted and a Malaya Cup committee comprising various football club representatives was established. The panel at that time decided to run the football competition in a two section format initially comprising six Malayan states. Penang, Selangor and Perak made up the northern section while their southern counterparts were Negri Sembilan, Malacca and Singapore.
TUNKU STEPS IN
The plan to host an international football tournament in Malaya only started to take root when Tunku became Vice-President of the Kedah Football Association (KFA) after his return from Cambridge in the late 1930s. Later in 1949, Tunku became President of the Selangor Football Association. A few years later, he was elected FAM President, a position he held for 20 years.
In the mid-1950s, Tunku urged the colonial government to build a stadium to further spur the advancement of football and other sports in the country. His request fell on deaf ears. Undeterred, the Kedah prince and avid sportsman put his dream temporarily on hold as he worked towards freeing his countrymen from the yoke of colonialism. He firmly believed that sports was the best catalyst to bring about greater social unity among Malayans of various races and religions.
As soon as Malaya was assured of self-rule, Tunku set plans in motion to build Stadium Merdeka which would go down in history as the first modern building for our new nation. Designed by architect Stanley Edward Jewkes, construction of the sporting facility began on Sept 25, 1956 and its completion was timed to perfection, just 10 days before tens of thousands of Malayans from all walks of life streamed into its grandstands to witness the transfer of power and Tunku's formal declaration of independence.
Tunku then urged each state in the Federation to build their own stadiums as he was keen to instil a broad based interest in sports and encourage participation among the general public. During those early years after Merdeka, only states like Selangor, Penang and Singapore featured prominently in the Malaya Cup tournament.
Tunku harboured strong hopes that the Merdeka Tournament would spark football interest in weaker states like Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. Even his home state Kedah only managed to grace the Malaya Cup finals once during the time when Tunku's brother, Tunku Yaakob ibni al-Marhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah, was the KFA President.
In recognition of Tunku's many contributions in the sporting arena, the Malayan Prime Minister was appointed the first President of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), a post he held until 1977. The position not only gave Tunku many new inspirations on ways to spur progress in Asian football, but also made other nations sit up and take notice of Malaya as a rising sporting powerhouse.
At the same interview, Tunku beamed with pride as he recalled the fact that the Merdeka Tournament helped spark various other international football competitions in other Asian nations. Among those were the Jakartaraya Competition (Indonesia), President's Cup (South Korea) and King's Cup (Thailand).
The progress made in Asia during the 1960s and 1970s caught the attention of the international governing body of football associations, FIFA. It subsequently paved the way for Asian representatives to hold important and prestigious positions in FIFA.
At its height, the Merdeka Tournament commanded tens of thousands of fans who never failed to fill every single seat in the stadium and cheered on the national team that had players from all the major races in the country. Many fans at that time even attested that the Merdeka Tournament was more important to them than the World Cup!
My interest piqued, I next turn to my collection of Dunia Sukan magazines to find out about the progress of the Merdeka Tournament in the later years. Based on a series of articles written in the late 1970s, I learn that increasing costs involved in running the competition significantly ate into the profits and severely hampered promotional efforts that were essential in sustaining interest.
In an effort to stem the slide, the organisers successfully secured the participation of new teams during the 24th edition of the tournament in 1980. Among them were squads from Morocco, China and Kuwait. News of the possible inclusion of New Zealand and Saudi Arabia together with familiar teams from South Korea, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore fired up interest among football fans.
Aware of grouses about the lack of excitement in the competition, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) decided to revert to the old format of sub-dividing the participating teams into two groups. Last implemented in 1973, this playing arrangement provided for the two top teams from each group to qualify for the semi-finals, with the winners then progressing to the cup deciding final.
Even before the first ball was kicked, Malaysia and South Korea emerged as the clear favourites by virtue of being the joint defending champions. Unfortunately, the home team, helmed by stalwarts like Shukor Salleh, Bakri Ibni Hassan, Ong Yu Tiang, Santokh Singh and Soh Chin Aun, failed to stop new comer Morocco from winning the tournament that year.
The Moroccans called on their vast experience playing in major international tournaments to subdue the Malaysian side by a 2-1 margin. Despite the loss, the Malaysians held their heads high after succeeding to reduce the gap since their humiliating 6-0 loss to the North Africans at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany.
One of the most memorable moments in the Merdeka Tournament history occurred in 1984 when legendary English footballer Kevin Keegan both coached and played for the Malaysia B team.
Up until 1988, the Merdeka Tournament managed to attract established teams from Ghana, Senegal, Iran, Czechoslovakia and Algeria. It also saw the participation of national youth squads from Argentina, the Soviet Republic (now Russia) and Bulgaria.
Malaysia's premier football competition also served as a stage where elite South American clubs like Sao Paolo, Primera B, Santa Catarina and Minas Gerais competed fiercely for honours with European-based clubs such as SV Hamburg, SK Admira Wacker, FC Tirol and Budapest Vasas SC.
The Merdeka Tournament took a breather in 1988 when many regional teams abstained from participating when the competition schedule clashed with those of the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying rounds. Since then, this prestigious competition, once the pride of Asia, began to lose its allure.
Only nine tournaments were successfully held since 1989 until now. The Merdeka Tournament was last held in 2013 after a four-year lapse (2009-2012) where our national Under-23 team, under coach Ong Kim Swee, emerged champions after beating the Myanmar Under-23 squad in Kuantan, Pahang. Since its inception, Malaysia has won the competition eight times and emerged as runners-up eight times, while South Korea emerged as champions five times and were runners-up thrice.
The latest news about the Merdeka Tournament's planned revival augurs well for local football fans. Many will be hoping that FAM can work out the details and bring back the glory days of this historic competition. The keen interest to participate shown by India, Taiwan and Indonesia, as disclosed by FAM secretary general Stuart Ramalingam, is definitely a good step towards fulfilling this dream.
Nevertheless, Malaysia's football governing body has its work cut out to make the Merdeka Tournament 2019 a reality. Everything, including team confirmation, budget allocation and venue, needs to come together soon to convince supporters and sceptics alike that FAM is truly serious about pursuing this noble cause.