KOTA KINABALU, Jan 28, 2016:
It was 1980 all over again for two almost Olympians as memories of them helping Malaysia secure a spot in the Moscow Olympics Games came rushing back as their story hit the silver screen.
“Memories”, was how former national striker James Wong simply summarised his feelings after watching the Ola Bola movie during a media preview here last night.
He said, “Hassan (Sani) and I kept guessing which one was our character. I guess I am Eric Wong, maybe, because I was once also called balak(log) and the character wore the number 9, which was my jersey number back then.”
Recalling their enthusiasm and spirit, Wong, who was 26 when he played for Malaysia in the Olympics qualifier said back then, the badge and playing for the country were above everything.
“Unlike today where sportsmen are paid handsomely, in those days we were not paid much. Sometimes we got an allowance of RM5 or RM50. Or, there were times when we won a match and got RM100. But we played with our soul, it was not about the money.
“We didn’t have good facilities to train, but I guess, it was determination and the collaboration as a team that made us good footballers.
“Plus, we too, like in the movie, refused to give up,” said the now 62-year-old, who came to the movie preview with former teammate, 58-year-old ex-national left-winger, Hassan.
Apart from the duo, another Sabahan, the late Peter Rajah, was also in the team. He was the goalkeeper.
Wong said winning against Korea to qualify for the Olympics was the best feeling ever, adding: “It was a one-two tactic with Hassan that allowed me to score the winning goal. It was a good day for us.”
But the “good day” did not last long when news of Malaysia boycotting the Olympics, joining the United States-led boycott against the Soviet Union for the invasion of Afghanistan, broke just a couple of days after their big win.
“We were devastated, our hopes and dreams were shattered. But our win proved our capabilities, and that is what counts,” he said.
Touching on the movie, both ex-national footballers felt that although some facts were changed, Ola Bola had definitely sent its message across.
“Despite the altered facts, which we totally understand because it is not exactly a documentary about us, we are satisfied. The struggle, as shown in the movie, was real.
“As a team, we must set our ego aside. We must respect one another and work as one. We were able to do that. Today, our players are adversely influenced by playing for money. There are also double standards, among others.
“A word of advice from us, set aside differences. There must be change,” said Wong.
Hassan, meanwhile, added that the fans were also an important influence on them.
“We could hear them cheering for us from the dressing room. That lifted our spirits, and we were able to play well because we could feel their support. The stadium was always full, even when we had lost in a few games.
“The dressing room scene in the movie, when the team captain and goalkeeper give a pep talk to the players really moved me. I had goosebumps. I could feel the tension they were going through. It was surreal.
“I didn’t know which was my character, but I wore jersey number 10 back then.
“Seeing the old photographs of us at the end of the movie really brought back memories. And for those who want to relive the memory, you may check out how we (Wong and him) did the winning goal on YouTube,” said Hassan.
After having left the field almost two decades ago, the duo are making a comeback.
They have been invited by Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman himself to be the assistant team managers of the Sabah Rhinos.
“It is indeed an honour and we are grateful that we are able to share our past experiences with the newbies.
“We may not have played in the Olympics, but I believe we will get there someday. There are great footballers out there and we will help find them.
“We want to bring back Malaysia’s football glory. It was our dream back then, and it is still our hope. We haven’t lost hope on football. We hope the fans are with us,” said Wong.