Road To Moscow 1980: The True Story Of Malaysia's Football Team That Inspired 'Ola Bola'

The names may have been changed and some events dramatised for the big screen, but what really went into the history books is no less inspiring.

Cover image via CH Loh / The Star Archives

It's only been less than a week since its release on 28 January, but 'Ola Bola' has already raked in a whopping RM2.5 million in the box office in its first 4 days on the big screen!

Image via Astro Shaw

Set in 1980, the Chiu Keng Guan-directed film is a fictional retelling of true events involving the national football's team brazen journey towards qualifying for the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, then of the Soviet Union

Formally established in 1963, the Malaysian football team is one of Asia's most formidable in the '70s and '80s, with legends such as Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, and R. Arumugam in the fray

Known then as 'Harimau Malaya', the team used a mix of players from Singapore and Malaya (west Malaysia) until Singapore exited Malaysia in 1965. The team continued using players only from the Peninsular until Sabahan James Wong was recruited to the team in 1971.

Other top players of the Golden Generation include Hassan Sani, Shaharuddin Abdullah, Wong Fook Chuan, N. Thanabalan, Zulkifli Norbit, Abdullah Nordin, and many others.

Malaysia qualified for the Olympic Games for the very first time in 1972, beating Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines in the qualifying round

Malaysia plays West Germany in the 1972 Olympics opening football match.

Image via BazookaPenaka.my

In the 1972 Olympics in West Germany, Harimau Malaya was defeated 0-3 in the opening match against the hosts but went on to win 3-0 against USA. However, they were knocked out of the tournament after a 0-6 loss against Morocco, ranking 10th in the final standings.

Having lost the qualifying spot to North Korea in the 1976 Olympics, the Malaysian football team had once again snagged a spot for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow after beating South Korea 2-1 in the deciding match with a winning goal from Sabah-born James Wong

Check out highlights from Team Malaysia's performance against South Korea:

The line-up, led by coach Karl-Heinz Weigang, that qualified for the 1980 Olympics:

Image via imgur.com

In fact, some viewers have suggested that the lead characters of 'Ola Bola' strongly resemble some key members of the qualifying team with their names changed

FUN FACT: Soh Chin Aun is also referred to as "Tauke", similar to the character based on him.

Sadly, the team did not make it to Moscow, as the Malaysian government made the decision to boycott the Games in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion against Afghanistan

In an interview with Tony Mariadass, former national defender Datuk Santokh Singh revealed that they were only told that the team is not going to Moscow shortly after they'd begun training for the Games.

"We were crushed and many of us were in tears. We felt sports and politics should be separate," he said, adding that FAM awarded them with a world tour in consolation.

Hassan Sani and James Wong, who were part of the 1980 Olympics team, reminisced the days when football wasn't about the money but a passion spurred on by national pride and mutual respect among team members

The Hassan-James tag team.

Image via Obses Bola

“Unlike today where sportsmen are paid handsomely, in those days we were not paid much. Sometimes we got an allowance of RM5 or RM50. Or, there were times when we won a match and got RM100. But we played with our soul, it was not about the money," said former national striker James Wong, who was 26 when he played in the qualifier, told The Rakyat Post.

“We didn’t have good facilities to train, but I guess, it was determination and the collaboration as a team that made us good footballers. Plus, we too, like in the movie, refused to give up,” Wong added.

James Wong celebrates after qualifying for the 1980 Olympics.

Image via CH Loh / The Star Archives

Meanwhile, Hassan credits the unwavering support from the fans for their success in the international arena, saying, “We could hear them cheering for us from the dressing room. That lifted our spirits, and we were able to play well because we could feel their support. The stadium was always full, even when we had lost in a few games."

'Ola Bola' is currently playing in cinemas nationwide. Watch the trailer here:

If you have friends who haven't seen the movie because they don't fancy football, here's how to convince them to:

The '70s and '80s were the glory days of Malaysian football with these legends on the field:

Meanwhile, the Malaysian football team has rebranded itself as 'Harimau Malaysia' with the hope of improving the standard of football in Malaysia:

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