Football: Malaysian film tries to renew belief in Bola and the wounded Tigers

Ola Bola! opened on Jan 28 in Malaysian cinemas.
Ola Bola! opened on Jan 28 in Malaysian cinemas.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - In a country that pays as much attention to English Premier League football as it does to local politics, one film director is seeking to rekindle lost pride in the national game that has languished in the doldrums for four decades.

Ola Bola!, the latest release from top-grossing Malaysian film-maker Chiu Keng Guan, opened on Jan 28 in cinemas nationwide with the slogan You Will Believe Again.

Belief, however, is in short supply among football-mad Malaysians, as the country slides down the global rankings of governing body Fifa.

"I want to bring back the golden era. We have to believe in something to go further," said Chiu, whose last movie, The Journey, raked in RM17 million (S$5.8 million) and set a Malaysian box-office record in 2014.

The Malaysia side reached the zenith of their success in 1972 when they qualified and played in the first round of the Munich Olympics, beating the United States 3-0 but losing 0-3 to hosts West Germany and 0-6 to Morocco.

The match that defined the "golden era", however, was Malaysia's 2-1 victory over South Korea before thousands of ecstatic fans that earned them a spot in the 1980 Moscow Olympics - a tournament that, alas, they ended up not attending.

Malaysia joined a boycott over the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Malaysians can now only dream of seeing their flag flying on an Olympic pitch as the world readies for the Rio Games in six months.

Beyond performances on the field, local football is still reeling from a nationwide match-fixing scandal in the mid-1990s.

Malaysian football reached its low point last year when angry fans from the die-hard Ultras Malaya group threw flares onto the pitch during a World Cup 2018 Asian qualifier against Saudi Arabia, earning Malaysia a US$40,000 (S$56,300) fine and a Fifa warning.

Chiu, a football fan himself, laments that the young simply "don't know how good we were before".

Winning back local support, however, he knows, will be tough.

Malaysia sat 171st in the world rankings in January, nearly 100 spots adrift of 79th place in 1993.

Fans blame decades of mismanagement by the football authorities.

"We are only supporters. We are not in a position to effect change. But when the authorities decide to just brush aside our concerns, what can we do? We can only throw flares," said Sham Khalid, a member of the Ultras.

For better or worse, all sport in Malaysia seems overshadowed by football. Even when squash ace Nicol David and world No. 1 keirin cyclist Azizulhasni Awang do well, talk quickly reverts to how badly Malaysia are performing in football.

"Unfortunately, the assessment of sports in Malaysia is based on football, at the expense of all the other sports," conceded Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.