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History makers: The day Singapore left Malaysia's World Cup dream in tatters

Forget the most recent World Cup qualifier between these rivals in 2011, the biggest game ever between Malaysia and Singapore took place all the way back on March 6, 1977, as senior columnist John Duerden recalls...

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It was another World Cup qualifying showdown, but the difference on this occasion was the genuine hope that Malaysia could go all the way to Argentina 1978. 

Santokh ‘Rocky’ Singh, Soh Chin Aun, goalkeeper ‘Spiderman’ R. Arumugam, Wong Choon Wah and ‘King’ James Wong. These are names that are enshrined into the history of Malaysian football and will never be forgotten.

Seldom in the past has there been so much intelligent movement on and off the ball by a Malaysian team

Spend any time in the country talking football and by the time it takes to fry a good char kway teoh, someone will have mentioned the golden days of the 1970’s and 80’s.

It’s no wonder, given the low ranking of the national team at the moment and the talent level of the players back then.

The idea of playing at the World Cup – with Asia and Oceania just having one representative at the time – was always a faint one, more of a dream than a realistic goal, but the possibility was just about there.

What was certainly achievable was to win the preliminary group and be one of just five nations to make it to the final stage of qualification.

James Wong (far right) was a star. Photo: Obses Bola

All Malaysia had to do was finish above Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong. All games were to be played in Singapore.

With a young and dynamic coach in M.Kuppan, Malaysia were looking very good indeed.

Singapore’s problem was not a lack of talent, but confidence. Results in their official games leading up to the qualifiers had been dire

The Tigers warmed up with a 2-1 loss against Red Star Belgrade at Merdaka Stadium that earned positive reviews.

“Seldom in the past has there been so much intelligent movement on and off the ball by a Malaysian team,” went one newspaper.

The one concern was the absence of striker Mokhtar Dahari, one of the most feared marksmen in Asia, but four goals from Wong in the opening game against Thailand eased those worries.

The 6-4 win flattered the Thais, who scored three goals after a rampant Malaysia raced into a 6-1 lead and then took their foot off the gas.

The goals failed to come against Indonesia next up in a frustrating 0-0 draw, with the next game the big one against the Lions.

Quah Kim Song with coach Choo Seng Quee. Photo: style mesti ada

A win would put Malaysia in a healthy position in the group, but the challenge was far from straightforward against a Singapore team boasting the silky skills of Dollah Kassim and Quah Kim Song, plus the vastly experienced Choo Seng Quee as coach.

Singapore’s problem was not a lack of talent, but confidence. Results in their official games leading up to the qualifiers had been dire, with five straight defeats, 22 goals conceded and none scored. 

It was a tough regime to the extent there was a mini revolt which resulted in the players getting placed in a hotel

Even more painful was a 4-1 loss to Malaysia in September 1976 at the President’s Cup.

But coach Choo was determined this time would be different.

A month before the qualification kicked off on February 27, former Malaya and Indonesia coach Choo put the players in a centralised training camp.

It was a tough regime to the extent there was a mini revolt which resulted in the players getting placed in a hotel.

Choo still trained the lads hard and on the eve of the campaign was adamant the players were physically and mentally ready.

Not many agreed.

[NEXT: Standing room only for the Causeway showdown]