Merdeka Stadium: The heartbeat of a nation

Before Bukit Jalil Stadium and Shah Alam Stadium were built, Merdeka Stadium was the home of the Malaysia national team, during a time when Harimau Malaya had plenty of reasons to be proud of their football.

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The venue did not make it into FourFourTwo’s 10 Best Stadiums in Southeast Asia, but it will forever hold fond memories for Malaysians.

It was the place to be for every footballer … all of us aspired to play at the Merdeka Stadium

Once the pride of the country – the place where Independence from the British was proclaimed – Merdeka Stadium has been reduced to a venue for concerts these days and even faced threats of having to make way for development.

Merdeka simply means Independence and annually the stadium gets plenty of publicity during the country’s celebrations to mark that occasion.

Located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, it has repeatedly rebuffed the threat of redevelopment since the 1990s and remains the identity of the country, but sadly the aura surrounding the football played there has long since gone.

“It was the place to be for every footballer … all of us aspired to play at the Merdeka Stadium,” former Malaysia international Dollah Salleh told FourFourTwo.

Merdeka Stadium during the 1989 SEA Games

“International matches and finals were played there and it was where the Merdeka Tournament was routinely held. Those will remain memories for eternity because new football landmarks are no longer set there.

“I even wrapped up my swollen ankle so that I could play in the World Cup qualifiers against South Korea there in 1985,” added Dollah, who scored a stunning winner from the edge of the box in that match.

The fans were so close to the field and we could hear them cheering us on – or otherwise!

- Zainal Abidin Hassan

Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was also an avid football fan and building a stadium to house the sport was part of his planning.

It took slightly under a year to build and was completed in time for Merdeka on August 31, 1957.

The area also included a public park, with Stadium Negara – an indoor venue – built next door in 1962.

Originally boasting a 20,000-strong capacity, several terraces were built to take Merdeka Stadium’s capacity to above 40,000 in later years.

The stadium is currently back to its original size after the upper terraces were removed to reinstate the stadium to its original dimensions from 1957.

The first football match took place in September 1957 as Malaysia defeated Myanmar (then known as Burma) 5-2 in a friendly.

From that point on Merdeka Stadium bore witness to many memorable moments in Malaysia’s football history, from Mokhtar Dahari’s goal against England in 1975, to James Wong’s winner over South Korea to 'send' Malaysia to the 1980 Moscow Olympics (later boycotted) and Dollah’s thunderous strike in those 1986 World Cup qualifiers.

Even the world renowned Diego Maradona graced the pitch when Boca Juniors played Selangor there in 1982.

Malaysia took the field at Merdeka Stadium for one last time in October 2001 when they drew with Cambodia 1-1

“Another thing that added to the atmosphere was the fact the fans were so close to the field and we could hear them cheering us on – or otherwise!” said another former Malaysia international Zainal Abidin Hassan.

Dollah, however, recalled one thing he didn’t quite like about the stadium - that the dressing room wasn’t as secluded from the fans as it is in stadiums today.

“The windows at the dressing room opened out to the fans and even if we closed it, we could still hear them … some asking for tickets,” said Dollah.

“It is not ideal to be disturbed in the dressing room. Team talks couldn’t go on smoothly, another challenge faced by teams in the past.”

Former Malaysia defender Serbegeth Singh, in an interview with FourFourTwo in July, recalled the 1989 SEA Games football final against Singapore at Merdeka Stadium as one of the highlights of his playing career.

The venue is mostly used today for concerts. Photo: TripAdvisor

He described the atmosphere as one that could send shivers down the spine of opponents.

“The stadium was filled and the entire Games contingent had come to watch the match. The few hundred athletes started singing 'Barisan Kita' and 40,000 people followed.

"The whole contingent came together. I am getting goosebumps right now just speaking about this,” said Serbegeth, better known as ‘Shebby’.

Malaysia took the field at Merdeka Stadium for one last time in October 2001 when they drew with Cambodia 1-1, while Kuala Lumpur temporarily returned to the stadium in 2015 after 17 years until pitch concerns brought that to a close.

Today, the stadium is no longer considered for professional football and is mostly used as a venue for concerts.

Among the more notable events that have taken place at Merdeka Stadium include the Muhammad Ali vs Joe Bugner boxing clash in 1975, a Michael Jackson concert in 1996 and the Bon Jovi Tour in 2015.

It was gazetted as a national monument in 2005 and awarded the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2008.

Below is a superb look back at Merdeka Stadium, courtesy of BFM 89.9