SEA Games 1989 final: When Merdeka Malaysia celebrated with the ‘mother of all gold medals’

Ending a 10-year wait, Malaysia won the 1989 SEA Games football gold medal in Kuala Lumpur on the same night the country celebrated its 32nd year of independence. FourFourTwo speaks to Dollah Salleh and Serbegeth Singh as they walked down memory lane of the night they defeated arch-rivals Singapore 3-1. 

STARTING LINE-UP

Rashid Hassan, Lee Kin Hong, Razip Ismail, Serbegeth Singh, Salim Mahmud Muhaidin, Lim Teong Kim, Ahmad Yosuf, Mat Zan Mat Aris, P. Ravindran, Zainal Abiddin Hassan, Dollah Salleh

GOALS

Malaysia: Borhan Abu Samah (own goal), Lim Teong Kim, Dollah Salleh

Singapore: Fandi Ahmad

THE STORY

Having comfortably disposed of 1987 winners Indonesia 2-0 with a brace from Lim Teong Kim in the round-robin, confidence was sky high in the knock-out stages. Indonesia had defeated Malaysia 1-0 in extra time in 1987 final.

Malaysia had not won the SEA Games – the premier football event in the region then – since 1979 and there was a sense of belief that Harimau Malaya could go one better from the silver achieved two years earlier in Jakarta.

Zainal Abidin Hassan’s sole goal against Thailand, a regular winner of the Games even back then, set up a clash against Causeway neighbours Singapore on August 31 at the historic Merdeka Stadium.

Malaysians turned up in numbers and there was only one thing on everyone’s mind – the gold medal on Merdeka (independence).

Some even doubted us and there was talk that the final would not be held on the same day as the closing ceremony for fears we didn’t reach the final

“There were expectations on us to win the competition from the very beginning but actually we were not the favourites,” said Dollah Salleh, who was among the scorers that night.

“Some even doubted us and there was talk that the final would not be held on the same day as the closing ceremony for fears we didn’t reach the final.

“Fortunately it was on the same day and very fitting that we played at Merdeka Stadium. Playing in that final turned out to be arguably my best moment in international football.

“We had home ground advantaged, our fans were amazing, great teammates and a coach we respected. It was impossible not to feel spirited to play,” he said.

Malaysia took the lead in the final after Lim, who currently spearheads the National Football Development Programme (NFDP), saw his cross deflected into goal by Singapore’s Borhan Abu Samah in the eighth minute.

Fandi Ahmad levelled the score in the 39th minute as the team headed into the dressing room at half-time on par with each other.

Lim, who was a constant threat to Singapore's defence from the left flank, put Malaysia ahead again with an audacious shot over the goalkeeper from the edge of the box in the 59th minute. Dollah put the match beyond any doubt with a header shortly after.

It was a win the Malaysians will not forget

“I knew it was over when we scored. We delivered the mother of all gold medals. The celebrations under the rain were crazy,” said Dollah.

Serbegeth, meanwhile, labelled Lim as Malaysia’s best player of the night.

Trevor Hartley deserves plenty of credit too. He recognised the talents of the players and allowed us to play our game.

“What worked for us was that we had a good squad … individuals like Lim Teong Kim stood up. He was literally our best player out there,” said Serbegeth, who is widely known as ‘Shebby’.

“So many players put out good performances to be frank, but Lim was unbelievable. Ahmad Yusoff and Mat Zan Mat Aris were outstanding too. Trevor Hartley deserves plenty of credit too. He recognised the talents of the players and allowed us to play our game."

Shebby explained that the squad had gained confidence going into the Games and it was largely down to a friendly the Tigers had against Everton the week before the tournament.

Everton were English champions just two years prior and English football was already popular in Malaysia. Yet it wasn’t just the 0-0 result that brought a new sense of confidence according to Shebby.

Many came out for the SEA Games final

“We felt good and after a good performance like that, we knew we were not going to struggle at the Games,” he said.

“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.”

We know what happened in 1994 (match-fixing scandal) and Malaysia had one continuous decline

It took Malaysia another 20 years to enjoy another gold medal (2009 and 2011) but a similar night at home was not meant to be in 2001, where the host suffered a 1-0 loss to Thailand.

Malaysia host the Games for the second time since 1989 in August 2017 and have targeted the gold medal.

“Instead of 1989 being the beginning, it was the end of an era too. I was 29 and some of us did not play another Games,” said Shebby.

“There were other circumstances that came in too and Malaysia hit a new low. We know what happened in 1994 (match-fixing scandal) and Malaysia had one continuous decline.”

THE COACH: TREVOR HARTLEY

Hartley arrived in Malaysia in 1989 on a one-year contract with the sole target of guiding Malaysia to the SEA Games gold medal.

Having already served in Singapore as technical director before assuming national team duties, the former Tottenham Hotspur caretaker coach knew exactly how much the Games meant.

The Englishman credited for the gold

In a previous interview with FourFourTwo, Hartley said: “We used the 1990 World Cup qualifiers (held in early 1989) and then we went on a short tour of Asia to play games. They didn’t care about results at the time and just cared about the SEA Games.”

Dollah described Hartley as a ‘fun coach’ that the players enjoyed training under and playing for while Serbegeth had something closer to relate to.

“I had missed a couple of competitions in 1989 and I bumped into him. He asked how long I’ll be out and that others had told him that my days were finished,” said the former defender.

“I rang him after coming out of injury and was told to report for duty immediately on that day. I remember it was a Friday. He was very forthright and made you feel important.

“Hartley can make you feel like you were the best player in the world, something not many local coaches can do … even until today,” he said.

THE SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Azmi Mahmud, Yap Kam Choon, Rashid Hassan
Defenders: Serbegeth Singh, K. Ravinchadaran, Razip Ismail, Chow Siew Yai, See Kim Seng, Lee Kin Hong, Salim Mahmud, M. Ravindran, Naina Mohamed Ismail.
Midfielders: Radhi Mat Din, Ahmad Yusof, Azizol Abu Haniffa, Mat Zan Mat Aris, Lim Teong Kim, Mubin Mokhtar.
Strikers: Zainal Abidin Hassan, Dollah Salleh, Subadron Aziz, A. Anbalagan, P. Ravindran, Aziz Azizan.

Main photo: favboutique