The year was 2010 and in the 89 previous years, a fair number of things have happened. Two World Wars, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, we went to the moon, the Beatles came to America, one billion people signed up on Facebook, and Snooki wrote a New York Times best-seller. It was during this eventful period too, that no player from the state of Kelantan ever came close to touching the biggest prize in Malaysian football, the Malaysia Cup.
I’m not entirely from Kelantan. My father is. I grew up in a different state, Selangor; not too far from Kuala Lumpur. My father moved to the capital, got married to my mother, and settled down at a suburb a stone’s throw away from they worked in downtown KL. This was in the early 90s, and Malaysian football was going through a period of finding itself. An institution still unsure of what it wanted to become, and how it wanted to evolve.
It was a time when the national football league was semi-professional. We had players working in corporate, industries and schools during the day and gracing the often puddle-laden fields across the country at night. And we had foreign players coming from African and Eastern European countries we’ve never heard of, becoming cult heroes mostly because of their novelty figures rather than footballing prowess.
But we had fun. Those were exciting times. Stadiums were always full to the brim and the atmosphere was outstanding. My father used to bring me to the old Merdeka Stadium to watch Kelantan play their away games against either Selangor or Kuala Lumpur. Often times still in his office shirt, we would walk along the dark alleys leading to the main gate together with the throngs of fans made up of those, who like my father, have settled down in KL, or traveled all the way from Kota Bharu, the state capital of Kelantan. It would take them at least eight to ten hours to get here.
Being the minnows at the time, results rarely went our way. But regardless of the figures on the scoreboard or their position in the league, the Kelantanese faithfuls were always there wherever the team bus went. Our hero at the time was Hashim Mustapha. Standing probably only half the height of his Yugoslavian striking partner Marko Kraljevic, Hashim was a man who had a bottomless bag of tricks. He was a dead-ball expert and rarely scored goals that weren’t either stunning volleys or spellbinding overhead kicks.
Alas, Kelantan were the ultimate underachievers. Amidst our mediocre performance in the league, the closest we ever got to winning a major trophy was the 1993 FA Cup where we lost 3 – 2 to Kedah in the semi-finals. A game that’s still fresh in my mind for I was more than positive that we had the best squad in the tournament. Under the tutelage of M. Karathu, Kelantan had a solid lineup of up-and-coming talents branching out of the strong foundation of Zahasmi Ismail, Zami Mohd Noor and Tuan Kamree Tuan Yahya making up the backbone of the team. Truth be told, the team lacked resilience and too much was expected of Hashim in carrying his home-state to glory.
1994 was a dark era for Malaysian football. A match-fixing scandal rocked the nation and one after another, players were dismissed and banned from the game indefinitely. The courts were filled with escorted footballers shunning themselves from the press, covering what used to be, faces of the league.
In the wake of the scandal, in a spectacular fashion only they could understand, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) decided to have the league turn professional, and its format changed by combining the previously separated two divisions, into one. Lasting only three years, the singular league was again segregated into one top tier and two lower tiers creating confusion like no other. These bouts of indecisive decisions continued for a few more years into the new millennium, turning off fans and sponsors away as satellite TV made their way into the country and European football was gaining momentum.
Coupled with the national team’s less than impressive performance at international level, the FAM appeared to have lost the plot and Malaysian football trembled into a point of (presumably) no return.
I gradually lost touch with Kelantan to a point where I didn’t even know which league they were playing in anymore. As if the predicaments on the pitch weren’t enough, our fans were starting to earn a reputation as some of the most notorious in the country. It didn’t help that the media took every opportunity to highlight the wrongdoings of our minorities. Footages of fights outside the stadium and flares burning the wrong things (e.g. buses) went viral and did us no favor. The FAM had no choice but to hold matches from being played at our Sultan Muhammad IV Stadium for a period.
The rise of Kelantanese football began under the leadership of Annuar Musa when he took office as President in 2007. Annuar brought a revolution and transformed the way the Kelantan FA was run by introducing changes that were akin to those practiced overseas. Local players were given exposure and national players were signed into the team to have a good blend of experience and finesse. Sponsorship deals were signed with various companies and with a good cash flow going into the first few years of Annuar’s leadership, Kelantan, now rebranded as the Red Warriors, was ready to take the pitch by storm.
2009 saw Kelantan going all the way into the semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup and the FA Cup. It was a year of no trophies -- as if we had won much previously -- but a statement of intent was clearly projected to the rest of the league. We haven’t arrived but weren’t too far off.
Walking toward the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on that October 30th evening in 2010 brought me back twenty years to the time my father walked me on our journey to Merdeka Stadium. I was probably so small at the time that the 40,000 strong crowd felt like a force of nature I could never make sense of. Bukit Jalil could fit 100,000 and as I got near the stands, only tiny green glimpses of the pitch were visible through the arms and legs of the people there. Kelantan was to face Negeri Sembilan that night, and I was in the sea of red.
In the 65th minute, captain Badri Radzi slotted in a historic goal that would earn Kelantan its first major trophy ever, the most valuable of the lot, the Malaysia Cup. I came home voiceless for a week. And it was well worth it.
Two years on and Kelantan has since collected two Malaysia Super League titles, an FA Cup trophy, its name engraved on the Charity Shield, played in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup and currently in the running for its second Malaysia Cup.
Worthy of an 89-year wait if you ask me.