Southeast Asia has a rich football history, with some big-name clubs intertwined with some notable, yet lesser-known outfits. In the third edition of our new series, FourFourTwo takes a closer look at Selangor MPPJ, who once upon a time shook Malaysian football...
“The problem with Malaysia is that we have a big history, but it’s only when people pass away that others start to remember and recognise the contributions these people have made to our game," Dollah Salleh lamented to FourFourTwo.
The former striker, one of the most recognisable names in Malaysian football, is talking about a time and a club that he holds dear but one that, like so many others throughout Southeast Asia, has been all but forgotten.
Ask a Malaysian under the age of 30 about the ‘Black Widows’ and you’re likely to get a vacant stare, yet the club that was known by that nickname holds a unique place in the pantheon of local football.
FOUNDED: 1992 (estimated)
MOHD YUSOP BIN SHAMSUDDIN: Former assistant manager of the team and current head of the youth academy, he’s one of the driving forces behind the club’s comeback push
JUAN MANUEL AROSTEGUI: Argentine striker, known as the Saint, who was an unstoppable force during the title run, scoring 13 times, including all three goals in the final.
DOLLAH SALLEH: The side’s coach, in his first full season in charge after only retiring a couple of years earlier. Was fond of inviting players’ wives and children along to away trips to build team harmony.
COLOURS: Sky blue and white
MOST SUCCESSFUL COACH: Dollah Salleh. Now in charge of Perlis FA, the former national coach was just 39 when he led MPPJ to the historic title before leaving for rivals Selangor a year later.
HOME GROUND: MPPJ Stadium, Petaling Jaya.
Petaling Jaya Municipal Council Football Club, better known as Selangor MPPJ, remain the only club team (i.e. non-state side) to have ever won the Malaysia Cup, yet just as quickly as they rose, they disappeared.
Three years after that historic title, in 2003, the club was dissolved and if not for the extraordinary efforts of a small band of believers, they may have disappeared forever, a memory slowly melting away as each new ‘super club’ rises.
As with many of the most remarkable stories from the region, the success of MPPJ involved a multitude of elements all coming together at precisely the right time with a momentum that built steadily to the point where by the arrival of the final, there was a feeling that their success was almost preordained.
Founded less than a decade earlier and backed by the local government of Petaling Jaya, the side had spent its entire existence kicking about the lower tiers of Malaysian football and few people gave MPPJ any chance of success when the 2003 Malaysia Cup kicked off.
The glory days
Drawn in Group C with their state-based rivals Selangor, as well as Sabah and Penang, they came from behind to draw in both of their opening matches before chalking up a first win, 2-1, against Penang on the third matchday. Argentine forward Juan Manuel Arostegui scored in all three games.
Two more wins over their final three matches in early September allowed them to finish second and book an unlikely quarter-final place with a team ‘built from scraps’ as those close to the side recalled.
Dollah, star striker and later coach of the national team, was the man who led MPPJ during that historic run, barely three years after retiring and, extraordinarily, without even holding the nation’s top ‘A’ coaching licence.
“We were a small club, started from nothing, and quite a few players were actually staff from the local government itself, others were students or clerks and the rest were what you could call a team of scraps,” he tells FourFourTwo at a cafe barely two kilometres from the stadium where much of that historic season unfolded.
The quarter-finals were played over the space of four days in mid-September with MPPJ drawn against another top Super League side in Pahang.
After the first leg ended scoreless, a 90th minute goal from Arostegui sealed a dramatic 3-2 win for the Black Widows and the momentum then really started to build.
Oddly, that included fans of the established Selangor state team turning up to lend support to MPPJ, as Dollah recalls.
“At that time our crowds were not big at all, in fact when the season started we would have been lucky to get more than just friends and families, perhaps a couple of hundred supporters to each match,” he remembers.
“Then, after Selangor were eliminated the chief minister and even the sultan started to get involved and they urged the Selangor fans to support us, so then they started coming in big numbers even though they were our rivals.
“When we played Perlis in the semi-final the stadium was full and they were all wearing our colours.”
An unrivalled feat
Walk around that stadium today and you get the sense that time has almost stopped.
The ticket counter windows are cracked and there are piles of junk stacked up inside every corner; loose shoes, broken seats and abandoned shirts strewn about.
On the day FourFourTwo was there, a lone cat with piercing eyes sat where those fans would once gather, next to a sign announcing the venue’s name that’s missing several of its metal letters.
Time may move on but history remains and the record books show that MPPJ dispatched Perlis 4-2 on aggregate with their star striker, Arostegui, scoring again in both legs.
“Nobody expected a small team to do this kind of thing, I didn’t expect to qualify even from the group so to reach the final was already an achievement,” says Dollah.
“There were times, I’ll admit, when I wasn’t even sure what I was doing. I only had my ‘B’ licence and at first I think I might have looked stupid and sometimes I didn’t know even what to tell the players during the game.”
Whatever the novice coach was saying was clearly working as the unheralded club side travelled to the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil to face Sabah, another giant of the Malaysian game, in front of 70,000 people.
One of the players in the starting line-up that day, midfielder Azrin Zainal, is now also one of the leading figures in keeping the club’s memory – and the faint hope of a revival – alive.
“Our nickname, the Black Widows, was a good reflection of our character; we were such a small team but we were powerful so like the spider itself, with one bite we could kill you,” he tells FourFourTwo.
“We felt that everybody was like brothers, we were very close to each other and couldn’t stand losing because we wanted to help each other. This was a strong point and even when we had to face Sabah in the final we were able to control the game very well.”
After a 13th minute penalty from Arostegui put MPPJ in front they were unstoppable thereafter, the Argentine, known as the Saint, scoring twice more in the second half as the Black Widows’ remarkable run had its fairytale ending.
That remarkable achievement promoted greater investment in the club, but also laid the foundation for their ultimate demise.