An interview with a legend: Zainal Abidin Hassan, Part I
For some younger fans of the round-ball game, when they hear the name Zainal Abidin Hassan it may conjure images of a man who has spent more than 15 years in various coaching roles across Malaysia.
But back in the 1980s and 90s, well before he held a clipboard or a whistle, Zainal was a deadly striker for Selangor, Pahang and the Malaysian national team.
In the beginning...
“I always knew I wanted to be a football player,” Zainal says with a twinkle in his eye as we begin our chat. “As far back as I can remember.
My two brothers played. They were my role models. It was destiny. My target was always to be a footballer
"My two brothers played. They were my role models. It was destiny. My target was always to be a footballer.”
Significant steps were taken on the path towards that dream destination as he started to realise that he had the talent to make it while still at school.
“I chose a school, Maxwell Secondary School, which at that time was in Selangor and now is in KL,” he said with a chuckle in reference to the spread of the Malaysian capital.
“I was good in sport and the master of football was a good coach. When I was, I think 15, I was representing Selangor state schools. I was recognised and got better training and my basic skills improved.”
Malaysia: Land of the giants
While his exploits at school were helping him forge a path, he also didn't need to look far for inspiration.
There were also giants in action in stadiums around Malaysia every weekend – including one in particular.
I was playing well. I don’t know if I was a good player, but I worked really, really hard
“When I was young, I could go to watch international and domestic games," Zainal recalls. "At the time there were huge players who were very good.
"But the one I always wanted to watch was the late Mokhtar Dahari.”
The striker was one of the very few players who has perhaps an even bigger claim for Malaysian legend status than Zainal. The 70’s were a time for heroes.
“The best part was when I watching him as well as Dato Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh and R. Arumugam and then soon after I was shocked to be in the same team as them.”
In the late 70’s, Zainal joined Selangor as a youth player, making his debut against Sarawak in 1980.
“We beat them. That was the middle of the season as I had spent a lot of time on the bench. From then, I was playing well.
"I don’t know if I was a good player but I worked really, really hard.”
The stars of the team at the time ensured that the youngsters worked hard.
“Mokhtar Dahari never gave less than 150 per cent. He trained so hard and he liked to teach people, but not only him.
“The old players could be harsh when they spoke but you took it and you improved. That was the way it worked. I was lucky to have such role models in front of me.”
A change of climate
At the time, Zainal was a full-back. “I was very fast. In my era, the overlapping system was just starting and I was doing that.
“It was hard in Malaysia, but I was fit."
Zainal's club, position and entire career changed in 1983 when he left Selangor to Pahang, a route that was going to become well-trodden over the years.
Frank Lord was the English coach who immediately made the difference in Zainal’s playing career.