Meet James Wong, Sabah’s Football Pride

James Wong winning goal against South Korea, 2-1

SMB: Tell us about your childhood.
JW: I went to school in SM La Salle but left school in Form 3 to help my family earn money. Times were hard back then so I had to contribute to my family’s income. I worked at a rubber factory in Putatan, earning RM150 a month! It was a lot of money back then. Every evening after work, I would still head to the football field to play football because I love itd football so much. My first football team was the Outsiders from Tanjung Aru and I was their goalkeeper back then.

SMB: When did you start to play with the big guns?
JW: I was called to play for the KK Youth (also as a goalkeeper) and we represented Sabah to compete in the Burnley Cup (now known as Malaysia President Cup) in 1969. I was only 15 years old back then. We drew at 1-1 and because there was no “penalty shootout” back then, we emerged as Joint Champions with Selangor Club. We went on to represent Malaysia in Tokyo.

SMB: You started off your career as a goalkeeper, and yet your legend mentions you as a great striker. How did that come about?
JW: It was a coincidence actually. We were not playing professionally full-time back then, so players will show up as and when they can. During one tournament back in 1970 or 1971, one of our strikers for KK Youth didn’t turn up. I volunteered to play the position because we had a reserve goalkeeper, but no reserved striker. Our manager had no choice but to let me play. I scored many, many goals and from then on, I played striker. A while later (the late) Peter Rajah came in as our goalkeeper.

SMB: When did you start playing for Sabah?
JW: I started playing for the Under-18 group for the Sabah team (Under-18 group) and we had enough talent in the team to join the senior squad. When I was 16 or 17 (while still in U-18 Sabah), David McLaren, an English coach from England came to Sabah to scout for new players to play for Bullion Hampton FC. I was very proud to be selected. At first, my dad didn’t want me to go but eventually, he agreed. However, McLaren’s plans didn’t go as planned. He brought me to Australia instead to play for Hakoah FC in Sydney. I was 17-years-old playing semi-professional football in a foreign country with no manager. It was hard to survive. I worked part-time in a salamy shop as an accountant. Eventually, I had to leave to come back home to KK because it was getting harder and harder to survive on my own.

I played for Hakoah FC for two years. When I came back home, I continued playing for the state and country while also surviving on rubber farmworker wages. Football was my full-time job. Although I was earning only RM10 a day back then, it was the privilege to play for my state that kept me going.

I also underwent 9-months training in KL to train with the national team. I was also offered to play for other states, but I declined because to me, Sabah is my homeland, and I should be contributing my talent to my own state.

SMB: What was your best experience?
JW: My best experiences would have to be whenever I play for my state and country. There are moments when you score a goal (or two) and win a league, but all that just adds more cream to your coffee. I feel proud whenever I am playing for able to wear our state and country jerseys on the field. Also,, and to feel the support from your countrymen wherever you are.

SMB: What is your worst experience?
JW: Back then, West Malaysia and East Malaysia were not as close as they are now. As Sabahans in the west, we had to undergo a lot of biased moments, especially when it came to national level selection. We could not be “just good”. We had to be “over-good”. That was why we were chosen for the national team back then. If I scored 47 goals in one season, how can you ignore me? You will get overlooked if you are on same level of performance as the other players.

SMB: Tell us about the 1980 Olympic games qualification.
JW: This is an interesting story. There was a lot of hoo-haa and biased situations during the team selection in Kuala Lumpur to go for the pre-Olympics qualification. It came to a point where our German national coach, Carl Weigang fought for us to be on the team. When it was announced that we were on the team, Hassan and I had already packed our bags and came back to KK. We went into hiding and refused to meet with anyone, including our coach when he came to KK to look for us. Finally, with a few more months to go to pre-Olympics, we received a summon from the Sultan of Pahang to “datang menghadap”. No one would dare go against the Sultan’s summons, so eventually, we made our way to KL.

When we arrived in KL, there were a lot of reporters camped outside the airport. The airport authorities had to bring us our through all the “jalan tikus” to our waiting Volkswagon, to bring us straight to Fraser Hill and join the intensive one-month training with the national team. It wasn’t all a bed of roses. We woke up early every morning to sing the ‘Negaraku’ before we started our very-intensive training. Honestly, at first, it was hard for us to get along. We were fighting almost everyday. But at the end of our training, we became a true team.

Before the game against South Korea, the South Korean goalkeeper said to me, “You no score today!”“. I proved him wrong by scoring the winning goal against them. During the medal ceremony, the goalie gave me a big fat kiss on the cheek! We felt like superstars because our fans and supporters were screaming outside our changing room. We were throwing all our jerseys, football shoes, pants, socks, training kits, and even our underwear to them! [Laughs] I felt proud, the team felt proud, and best of all, Malaysia was proud of us and our victory. Little did we know, the victory was short lived.

“Kita ikut US boycott”. That was what we were told two weeks after our 2-1 victory against South Korea. Talking about it is like taking a dagger and stabbing it through my heart. It is a dream of every sportsman to play for the Olympics or the World Cup. It is the pinnacle of your career to be able to do so. Frankly, I cried when we watched the 1980 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony because we could have been there. Up to today, I cannot watch watch any Olympic Games Opening Ceremony because it just brings back a lot of sad memories.

To make up for our sadness, we were brought on a World Tour instead and played friendly matches with Switzerland, Germany, England, and Brazil. However, none of us had the heart to play or win in those games anymore.

SMB: Did you continue playing football after that?
JW: Yes. I came back and continued playing football for a few more years. I hung up my boots when Sabah withdrew from Malaysia Cup in 1986 due to the riots within the state.

SMB: What is your advice to the young players out there?
JW: To be the best, you must be disciplined, committed, and desire to be what you want to be. You must have the spirit to achieve your dreams. When you’re faced with obstacles, do not give up. Be the best until people cannot afford to ignore you. Be extremely good and people will respect you.

SMB: What makes a good football player?
JW: A football player needs to be an all-rounder. A General (midfielder) is an important person and it has to be someone who can observe and control the game.