Dream Team 1994: The one who proved size doesn't matter – Malek Awab
What have you been up to since 1994?
After Singapore withdrew from the Malaysian competition, I played in the S.League for three seasons from 1996 to 1999 with Tampines Rovers, Home United, and Woodlands Wellington, before hanging up my boots.
I am currently working at sports equipment company Pacific Sports Pte Ltd. I head the football equipment distribution department there. I have been working with Pacific Sports for 31 years already. I was with the company even when I was playing for Singapore in the Malaysia Cup. I would go for training in the morning, report for work and rush down after work for evening training.
I only played professionally from 1986-1990 with Kuala Lumpur FA. Fandi Ahmad and K Kannan were also in the team with me and it was very memorable spell because I won three Malaysia Cups with them, in 1987, 1988, and 1989.
How did you start off in football?
Basically in school, I ‘cannot make it’. I was never selected to represent the school in football. Most of the teachers told me “no need to come for training” because they thought I was too small-sized for football. I weighed only twenty kilos in secondary one so I only played football recreationally with my friends in the kampung. We would kick a plastic ball around on the sand. My brother played in the team and I would follow him for games and kick around while they were warming up. When the game started, I would be the linesman or water boy.
I was 15 and studying at Geylang Serai Vocational School when I was asked by my friend, Syed Anwar, to accompany him to train with Farrer Park United. I was initially reluctant to go but he managed to persuade me.
I was very lucky to meet people like Robert Lim, Robert Ng, Joe Dorai and Victor Dorai, the coaches and officials at Farrer Park United who gave me a chance. They were very encouraging and told me to come back to train and play with the youth team. That was how I started.
I want to say to all the young kids who may think they are too small for the game, that size is secondary. You look at all the top team sports; in the NBA (National Basketball Association), which is a game of giants, there are small players; in rugby, you look at the New Zealand All Blacks, they are known for their strength and size, but their engine room is run by a small player.
Work on your strengths. I worked very very hard to ensure that while I was smaller, I was also more mobile. With a low centre of gravity I was speedy and could control the ball well.
How did you break into the national team?
I started playing for Farrer Park in the National Football League Division One when I was 18. I made progress and caught the eye of the national coach at that time, Jita Singh, when I was 19. I believe Jita’s assistant, Ibrahim Awang, was the one who recommended me to Jita. Jita must have watched me at a few games before deciding to call me up.
I still remember the date of my debut for the national team – 13 October 1980. It was a friendly against Newcastle, a team from Sydney, Australia. I came on in the second half. It was a big moment for me. I was too excited and in my eagerness to run and chase for the ball, I was given a yellow card in that game (laughs).
Together with Fandi and Sundram, you were one of first few Singaporeans to play football overseas. How did you end up playing for Kuala Lumpur FA?
K Kannan was the first to play for Federal Territories (the old name for Kuala Lumpur FA) in 1984, and then Fandi joined the team in 1985 and helped them to reach the 1985 Malaysia Cup final. Although they lost the final in 1985, the mayor of Kuala Lumpur and president of the team, Tan Sri Elyas Omar, was still very ambitious and was on the lookout for new players.
I had travelled up with the Singapore team in 1986 to play against them. We won 1-0 and after the game, Fandi came over to team hotel to tell me that Tan Sri Elyas wanted to meet me. So I went with Fandi to meet him and he offered me a two-year contract with the team.
I returned to Singapore to seek the permission of my boss at Pacific Sports. It was the dream of all footballers in Singapore then to get a professional contract and my boss was very understanding. He gave me his blessings and a few weeks later, I flew over to Kuala Lumpur to begin my professional stint.
In the eighties, there was no professional league in Singapore, so for Singapore players who wanted to play professional football, Malaysia was one of the first options. There were probably about ten to eleven Singaporean players playing for Malaysian state teams. You had Ahmad Paijan, Syed Mutalib, Norhalis Shafik, Zainal Abidin, R Suriamurthi, Terry Pathmanathan, Sundram, the late Razali Alias, K Kannan, Fandi and myself.
What was it like being the vice-captain of the 1994 team?
I didn’t see myself as someone special. I was the second oldest player on the team after David Lee, so I just saw it as me guiding the younger players in the team. On the field, Fandi was the leader. My job as a vice-captain was to make sure that the players were well taken care of off the field. I made sure everyone mingled with each other. When we went overseas for training, I made sure everyone had enough to eat. To me, what was most important was that everyone was happy to be in the squad.
Of course, I am also proud to have been the vice captain of that team because it was really a very strong team, on par with the Kuala Lumpur team I played for in the eighties which won three Malaysia Cups in a row.