Veteran footballer James Wong recalls a forgotten era and the victories enjoyed. Kerry-Ann Augustin writes
“YOU are making me think. I don’t like to think,” he says, snickering.
I am on the phone with James Wong, oddly asking him non-football related questions. Together with other footballing legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam, Santokh Singh, Soh Chin Aun and fellow Sabahan Hassan Sani, they remain Malaysia’s favourite sons of the sport.
But Wong has deviated completely from football. He now runs an events company that supplies live bands for functions. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” he says, referring to his decision to delve into another one of his passions. “I’ve always liked music. In fact we had a family band called The Final Fling…but it’s really final already-lah. Since it ended 20 years ago,” he says, jokingly.
A lot has changed since Malaysian football was something to talk about. But this World Cup season, some forgotten things are worth remembering — like what Wong meant to the fans and the people who knew him.
COURT OF KING JAMES
On Jan 12, 1986, an article in the New Straits Times by Dan Guen Chin lured readers in with a prophetic opening: “There are three things Selangor will fear when they line up against Sabah at the Merdeka Stadium tonight. Complacency, defeat and… James Wong”.
In truth, he wasn’t just a threat to Selangor — he was also a thorn in the side for teams who were pitted against the country’s best in the 1980s.
To the nation, he was King James — a figure of staggering height, of boyishly handsome looks and a beautiful build who struck fear in the hearts of opposing teams with his rapid pace and venomous strikes. To Sabahans, he was affectionately known as Ah Fook.
“I started playing football when I was about 10 years old,” says Wong, who is now in his 60s. “My father was not keen on my brothers and me playing football so we would sneak out of our house to play the game,” he sniggers, recalling the rebelliousness. Risking getting caught by his parents paid off as all five Wong boys (Tony, Harry, Vincent, Johnny and James) donned Sabah colours in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.
Wong and his brothers all donned Sabah colours. From left Johnny, Vincent, Tony, Harry and James
“My father eventually became a spectator and a supporter, of course.”
It was during playing for the State that the locals watched Ah Fook bloom from Tanjung Aru boy to one of the nation’s best.
“The moment James Wong’s name is mentioned in the line-up just before the match starts, everybody goes crazy! Even the older fans!” says Thresia Moguil, a football fanatic who used to watch the Sabah team of the ’70s and ’80s play at the Likas Stadium.
“Teams from the peninsula before this had always looked down on Sabah and even considered Sabah as whipping boys. But James Wong made a big impact and changed the history of Sabah football.”
Former Sabah team manager Ronald Cooke agrees. “Wong was a truly gifted footballer and the best the state has ever produced,”
My father, Rupert, also grew up watching the Sabah team trample their West Malaysian opponents time and again with their footballing flair. “Ah Fook was in a class of his own. To us Sabahans he was the complete footballer. He towered above his opponents, had excellent dribbling skills, a powerful header, and deadly with both his left and right legs! But the thing that stood out most was that he was held in awe by not only his opponents and teammates but also by us, the fans. He had that X-factor, which is conspicuously absent in our professional footballers of today.”
A NATION’S MOMENT
On the afternoon of April 6, 1980, Malaysian fans with flags in hands and pride in their hearts marched towards the Merdeka Stadium. Malaysia was to play the gallant South Korea in a match that would determine a place in the Olympics.
With minutes left and both countries tied at one goal each, the swift Hassan Sani weaved his way through the South Korean defence, passing the ball to Wong who demolished the Koreans with a thunderous shot, sending the ball into the back of the net.
Wong (center) after scoring the winning goal in the Olympics qualifier against Korea in 1980
“It is the goal I am most proud of scoring,” confides Wong.
Rupert, who was among the thousands of Malaysians there that day, describes the moment as an unforgettable one.
“I felt the blood rush to my head and at that very point, the entire stadium erupted as we celebrated with joy, laughter and tears — proud that we were all united in a victorious moment for Malaysia.”
Duncan, Wong’s youngest son, says that his favourite memory of his father is encapsulated in a video — Wong’s historic goal has been immortalised in the digital world for the older Malaysians to remember what they had and for younger Malaysians to remember what they have lost.
Duncan, like many born in the ’80s, views the fuzzy footage of the match online. Given the state of our football these days, it is the closest they will ever come to experiencing a solid Malaysian team. “It’s the way they played with all the pride of winning the game. Till today, I still have that in my mind whenever I watch football,” he says.
Even though Wong is mostly remembered for his prolific performances on the pitch, it is moments outside the game that he considers his greatest victories.
Wong and his sons Ian (left) and Duncan (middle)
Tying the knot and bringing two children into this world — that would be the most important wins of my life,” he says, referring to Jennifer, his wife of over three decades and their sons, Ian and Duncan.
“My dad is caring and funny. He doesn’t really tell jokes but whenever I’m down, he knows what to say. He calms me down and makes me smile,” says a shy Duncan who confesses that he and his brother saw more than just a fatherly figure in Wong. “Ian and I played football, of course. Our dad use to train us at home. I really wanted to be like him. There were lots of photos and trophies around the house when I was growing up and I used to ask him a lot of questions,” recalls Duncan, who was a rugby player before becoming a chef.
“I do see a lot of myself in my sons,” Wong says with a chuckle. “Yes, the mischievous side too.” He retreats backs to his earlier, more muted tone and says that raising children is the greatest responsibility and sacrifice.
“You can tell them not to do this and that but at the end of the day, they have to make their own mistakes. It’s the same for me — I don’t see my mistakes as regrets, I take them as lessons.”
Before I hang up, I ask if his proudest moment was the winning goal against South Korea. “No,” he says. “Raising my sons to be fine young men is.”
Looks like King James is walking tall in the courts of life these days. KERRY-ANN AUGUSTIN - NST Men 5 JULY 2014 @ 8:04 AM