Monday, July 13, 2009

Outside and Off-side

I was in Standard Two of the Malay school Kluang and was slowly learning to take better care of myself at school. My mentor friend and protector, who was then in Standard Five, I think, had already taught me quite a number of survival tactics such as how to request for a lift from kindly old Sikh bullock-cart owner on a hot afternoon home; or walk slightly longer but cooler route through a shady path under huge, leafy if somewhat intimidating (in the late evening) "angsana" and “kayu ara” trees. From him too, I learned about football and how to play the game using rags, paper and even worn tennis balls salvaged from the tennis courts in town or at the club at Jalan Renggam. He himself was a school star player.

Football and rounders were about the only games I knew then but through the sheer size of the regulation football was to me quite daunting relative to my poor build, that did not stop me from taking great interest in the game. The inter-school matches always garnered massive support and interest from the local populace and such spectacles drew sizable crowds to the small school field. Other visiting school teams with fanciful names to me then included Pintas Puding, Bandar Penggaram and Kota Raja (from Singapore, I think). The most important personality in any team it seemed was not the coach or manager but a colourful slightly built man, usually with a bushy moustache who sat quietly, cross-legged at a choice spot (his choice), sometimes seen chanting and mumbling. He was the all-powerful “pawang” or shaman and one was engaged by each team. We all believed the more potent of the pawangs held sway as to which way the game went. There was even talk of these practitioners burying swine bones at a strategically magic spot to the detriment of the opposing team. If black magic is still a thriving and much sought after art now, what more in 1950?

From the mid-fifties onwards, football in Kluang town was given much boost by the appearance of teams from the various units in the British army camp at Jalan Hospital for the Kluang District League. I can remember vaguely teams from the R.E.M.E (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), R.E. (Royal Engineers), R.A. (Royal Artillery), R.A.S.C (Royal Army Services Corps), to be later joined by the Gurkha Rifles, and a local unit, the Malay Regiment, from Jalan Mersing. There were many more. Some of these British army teams had local players who worked as members of their units, naturally.

The Kluang civilians put up teams from the Medical Services, Kluang Malays, Chinese and Indians besides others. There were also teams from the estates, notably Pamol Estate, Elias and Kahang Estate and these valiant fighters were fondly remembered for their sportsmanship and love for the game despite returning home with huge deficits of goal scores that did not dent their spirits. Blackwood was a name that struck fear into the robust hearts of opposing defenders as was an amiable, cheerful Gurung. The former was from an army unit called the Scottish Borderers or something to that effect, whilst you don’t have to guess it, the latter, from the Gurkhas.

Football games were entertaining. Besides the thrills, spills and colours lent by the different attire and personalities, some army units brought along their regimental bands to play before the game and during the half-time. The bagpipes provided the more moving and at times melancholy moments of the dazzling presentations. The locals learned English the fun way including some unprintable, inevitably from the white supporters. I suggest a title “English at play” for anyone who contemplates dwelling on writing about language learning in this situation. It took me sometime to differentiate between outside and offside and at first I thought the captain of any team, was always the centre-forward. The centre-forwards are obsolete now, are they? Not to be outdone, the foreigners could be heard yelling “curi ayam” for offsides committed by the opposing teams. Not bad for cultural exchanges and linguistic diplomacy. Miraculously there were no fights during the inter-racial team games despite the name callings bordering on the obscene. Such tolerance!

Whilst most army ‘chaps’ were noisy and boisterous, the Gurkhas gained my respect for discipline and decorum even then! Supporters from the army units always came to the padang in their green trucks but the similarities ended there. The Gurkhas were always trim and proper with white long-sleeved shirts, ties, grey pants neatly pressed, and shiny black shoes. They quietly dropped off their vehicles in turn and immediately lined up to buy their twenty-cent tickets for the seats. Their cheerings, and applause were measured and disciplined, nothing bawdy or instigating. They left the grounds in a single file and the motion was reversed for their orderly return journey.

The padang had gunny sacks strung up the fencing to encourage more paying fans into the arena. Estate supporters merely stood on their convertible open lorries for an unobstructed view of the game. Young boys, me not exuded, were often let into the field for free by sympathetic guards stationed at gaping holes over uneven ground or large drains. The ten cents saved for the free standing tickets could be better-off used for a valid packet of “kacang putih”.

Legendary players like Awang baker, Dol Fattah, Rahim Omar from across the causeway graced the lips of all football buffs then. Homegrowns who kept the crowds enraptured were Mohd. Noor Khamis, Cheng Kok and much later Ungku Ismail (there were two of them), and Ali Radin of Batu Pahat. Ali’s placed kicks were deadly and despite his petite build was a tireless and menacing weaver who harassed poor exasperated backliners to the final whistle. We enjoyed many inter-district and inter-state games too, Kluang probably given the honour of being the venue due to her central location in the Johor state. Visiting teams included those from Hong Kong and India, who played barefooted yet gave our home team a tough time. The Kluang District team was a formidable one and the players, all amateurs, got their rewards simply through the love of the game and being the toast of the town.

I particularly looked forward to the games during the fasting month of Ramadhan for it somehow erased the thought of breaking fast time. As soon as the game ended, I who was always entrusted to buy the ice block (at ten cents, naturally) for chilling our drinks, rushed straight to the ice stall. I had ample time to reach home and a good bath before breaking fast. I was then in my early teens.

I did not make the school team in my secondary school years because there were simply too many better ones around who virtually camped on the school field every evening and for long hours during the weekends. Tuition classes were unknown then nor were there such electronic gadgetry as prevailing commonly now and “lepak” is a very recent phenomenon coined to welcome the affluent generation.

Perhaps our only other distraction then was the jukebox spinning songs by Presley, Cliff Richards, Russ Hamilton and Anneke Gronloh. Even then our idols with their football wizardry continued to inspire us and they came in the form of giants like Abdul Ghani Minhat, Edwin Dutton, Stanly Gabriel, Sexton Lourdes and Arthur Koh of the swinging sixties.

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