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 By Nicolas Anil

Gaining AFF Cup inspiration from Malaysia's 1980 Olympic heroes

As Malaysia's players built camaraderie at this week's three-day team building camp at the coastal town of Port Dickson, one former national coach reminisced about a bonding session which stirred one of the country's biggest football success stories.

Karl-Heinz Weigang was the catalyst behind Malaysia's gallant run in qualifying for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It is a feat that is cherished and spoken of fondly by different generations. Now 81 years old, the German is one of Asia's oldest coaches. But his memory of that team-building exercise in the breezy backdrop of Fraser's Hill, 223 kilometres north of Port Dickson, remains as vivid as ever.

Just like the struggling 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup squad, Malaysia's 1980 side desperately needed a boost after a nightmarish build up to the Olympic qualifiers.

They played high-quality European club opponents, and were soundly beaten in three different friendlies.

"We lost our first match against FC Basel 4-2, followed by a 9-0 thrashing to Red Star Belgrade. After that, we played the New York Cosmos, who had football greats such as Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. We lost that game 5-0," Weigang recalled to ESPN FC.

KEM . Imej dari langkauan beberapa hari sebelum menentang Korea Selatan, kelayakan Sukan Olimpik 1980, sekitar bulan April 1980. Sebelum itu, skuad kebangsaan dikumpulkan untuk satu latihan pusat selama dua bulan di Bukit Fraser bagi meningkatkan semangat kekitaan di kalangan pemain. . Tradisi menganjurkan kem bina diri, bina semangat, motivasi atau apa jua gelarannya, antara yang sering dikelolakan oleh badan induk bola sepak negara. Setakat kem ala tentera di zaman 1980an dan awal 1990an dahulu, adalah suatu perkara biasa. . Macam filem 'Remember The Titans' juga. Tradisi yang diteruskan sehingga kini, meski lain-lain negara jarang benar kita dengar bertindak sedemikian. Apa-apa pun moga kem bina diri yang sedang berlangsung di Port Dickson itu bisa menterjemah sesuatu yang baik bila mana para pemain beraksi di atas padang. . Bendera sama yang kita kibarkan, lagu sama yang kita nyanyikan. . SELAMANYA HARIMAU MALAYA! . #malaysiasoccer #selamanyaharimaumalaya #harimaumalaya #ultrasmalaya #msl2016 #tanahtumpahnyadarahku #malaysia #malaysiaboleh #demimalaysia #negaraku #igreview #paidreview #futsalmalaysia #nfdp #teammalaysia #sayajual #kakibola #kamiteammalaysia #igreviewmurah #sayajualonline #malaysiapower #sayajualmurah #teammalaysia #paidreviewmalaysia #ligamalaysia #futsal #kakifutsal #bazarpaknil #bazaarpaknil #onlineshopmalaysia #igshopmalaysia

A photo posted by HARIMAU MALAYA (@malaysiasoccer) on

"Everyone buried us. It was a month before the qualifiers and our morale was at a low. Then we went for our final, centralised training in Fraser's Hill. This was not about the football, it was more of team building, and it changed everything."

For one month, Weigang and his men lived in century-old, pristine forests, where the British army had for scoured for gold, and other valuable metals, during colonial times.

"We were bracing for war, but we lived like a family. Every morning, there was a flag-raising ceremony and we sang the [Malaysian national song] Negaraku in unison. It was inculcate, the players felt like there was something transferring inside them," Weigang said.

"That team building prepared us, physically and psychologically. The boys were aware of the opportunity to make it to the Olympics, was their chance of a lifetime."

Malaysia went on to create history in those Olympic qualifiers, topping a group that contained current Asian powerhouses, Japan and South Korea.

Weigang's troops downed South Korea 2-1 in the playoff final, thanks to a late James Wong strike, in front of a capacity crowd at the Merdeka Stadium to qualify for Moscow.

Their 23 goals made them the Asian qualifiers' highest scorers, and they didn't lose a game. Much of it was owed to Khalid Ali, whom Weigang transformed from a defender to a midfielder at Fraser's Hill.

"Khalid was one of the late comers to the squad. He played as a right-back for Selangor, and was gifted both physically and technically, with a lot of guts. One day I told him of my plans to play him in midfield, as we already had a good right-back in Jamal Nasir," the German recounted.

"He told me 'Coach, I cannot, I have never played in midfield'. My words to him were, 'I brought you in as a good footballer, do not tell me you cannot. I am here to help you, all you have to do is accept'.

"In the qualifiers, he went on to become the top scorer from midfield. But the players suffered under me. I am not an easy man to work with on the field. Either you work hard, or you're out."

Malaysia never made it to the Moscow Olympics, choosing to boycott the world's biggest sporting stage in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

The decision was a big blow to the players, according to Weigang.

But their heroics of April 1980 would go on to provide the highlight reel for decades to come. It also inspired the 2016 blockbuster hit Ola Bola, which bagged three awards at the Malaysian Film Festival in September.

Ola Bola also received a Special Jury Prize for achievement as a film, which showcased national unity through sports, a sentiment wily Weigang deeply shared.

Malaysia starting team vs. Singapore
The 2016 Malaysian side for the AFF Championship have heard the stories of the heroes of 1980.

"I cried when I watched that movie. The film was about Malaysian unity, and it captured that aspect beautifully," he said.

The Perak boss -- he returned to save the silver state from relegation midway through the 2016 Malaysia Super League season -- reserved his comments when asked if the current national team, under Datuk Ong Kim Swee, had a shot at salvation.

"You have to look at the country's situation and the football in general, so maybe," was all he would say. But Ong, and his men, do not need any words of encouragement, or advice from Weigang as they prepare for the biennial AFF showcase later this month.

All they need, perhaps, is to heed those lessons of hard work, team spirit, fellowship, and family, from the heroes of yesteryear.

Thirty six years ago, Weigang galvanised Malaysia during a month-long stint at a hilltop.

Surely, the current side, with a raft of new players, can also discover some of that special bond at the seaside of Port Dickson this week.

Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.

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