Friday 13 May 2016, 03:39

Ola Bola relives Malaysia's Olympic past

With the Olympic Football Tournaments at Rio de Janeiro 2016 just around the corner, fans from Malaysia are recalling the golden days of their qualification 36 years ago through the launch of a new film which is taking the country by storm.

It’s fair to say that Ola Bola has re-ignited the passion for the game across the south-eastern Asian country. Based on the country’s qualifying campaign for Moscow 1980, the film has drawn increasing attention from fans of all walks of life. Students, players, office-workers, all donned in the colours of Harimau Malaysia, are taking to the cinemas to pay tribute to their golden generation. Cheers of delight can be clearly heard when the film shows the team confirming their place at Moscow 1980 with a pulsating victory against Korea Republic.

"Our fans are turning the cinemas into stadiums," movie director Chiu Keng Guan told in a recent interview. "They treat this film as if it were a football match. They wear jerseys, bring banners and they chant as they do in the stadiums. The clubs organise their teams to watch the film and some fan groups book the entire cinema.

"The film tells the story of our best team in history. The attack was formidable and we boasted the most creative midfielders. Aside from their talents, those players made big efforts and made sacrifices in preparing for the qualifiers, but they made it. I hope the movie can encourage more youngsters to play football and draw greater attention to the game."

The heady days Malaysia may have made little impression on the international stage in recent decades, but the team were truly among Asia's finest in the 1970s. They booked their maiden Olympic qualification for Munich 1972, defeating both Korea Republic and Japan along the way.

They repeated the feat eight years later in breathtaking fashion. Playing on home soil in a six-team group, Malaysia entered the final match against Korea Republic trailing by a point. Spurred on by the home crowd, Bakri Ibni opened the scoring before James Wong sealed the 2-1 victory as they progressed at the expense of the South Koreans.

"That period (the 1970's) was our best time," continued Chiu, who was born in 1972; the year when Malaysia impressed in their Olympic debut with a 3-0 victory against USA.

"We twice made to the Olympic Games. Many young people were inspired by the national team's success. As a student I began playing football with the school teams. I had once given serious thoughts to pursuing a football career. I dreamed of being a footballer like Pele and Ian Rush. I admired the latter so much that I wore the number nine jersey in school!"

The early passion for the game may explain why he risked making a football movie. But for Chiu, already an established director of films like Woo Hoo, Great Day and The Journey, it was more of a sense of responsibility than passion that prompted him to make the decision.

"When I went to Brazil in 2014 to watch the World Cup games, I entered a football store in the stadium. There were jerseys of all the 32 qualified teams but of course, no Malaysia! How great it would be if we book a return to the Olympic Games, or seal our first-ever World Cup qualification? I think all Malaysians share my feelings."

A former amateur striker, Chiu's appreciation of the game has been enhanced during filming as he revealed. "Our criteria for the actors were strict: you must first play football. But still there were all sorts of difficulties in the process. For just a scene of either a pass or a shot on goal, we had to try several times before we made the cut. This increased my respect to professional footballers. They can make such precise passes and such wonderful strikes under pressure."

The story in Ola Bola has also struck a chord among those from the squad which qualified for Moscow 1980, despite the film not being entirely historically accurate, with the scoreline against Korea Republic changing to 3-2 in the movie. "Some veterans told the press that they like the movie,” continued Chiu. “They thought the film relives the tension and thrill of the final match. As for the audiences, I think it is the spirit by those players and their pride of playing for the country that still resonates today."