The year was 1974. The noise was the Kallang Roar.
It was a football match between Singapore and Penang. The teams were playing to a capacity crowd of 70,000 fans who packed the old National Stadium. At least 10,000 were locked out, so many fans tried to climb over the gates. And author A Thiyaga Raju was only 13.
This was a scene of Singapore football that he remembers most vividly.
“I will never forget that day. It was a Sunday… It was my first time stepping into the stadium, and I didn’t realise it was an illegal entry as I was too naive. But that was where I saw all the legends on the same field. Singapore won 3-2, and it really drove me crazy. Ever since then, I spent most of my time finding out more about all of these players,” said the 61-year-old author.
From then onwards, Mr Raju has been compiling information about all the national players and their backgrounds, with the hope of someday publishing a book.
That hope was realised almost 50 years later on 31 Aug 2022 when his book ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore was launched at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
It documents over a century of Singapore football history from the colonial era to the present day, and is the product of Mr Raju’s lifelong passion for football that began back in the 1970s.
“I had spent many hours doing research at the National Library and going through old microfilms. It was challenging, but very enjoyable because I started learning new things about people like Uncle Choo Seng Quee from Raffles Institution. All of these stories are registered in the book,” he said.
In tandem with the book launch, a free-admission exhibition match was organised between the Singapore and Malaysia footballing legends where the likes of Fandi Ahmad, Malek Awek, and Datuk Soh Chin Ann graced the field once more.
“We should recognise and appreciate our football greats — past and present — for their contributions to the nation through sports. They sacrificed a lot of their prime years, slogging under the sun to bring honour to our country, and this is my small gift to them,” said Mr Raju.
Just before the kickoff, the book launch was attended by President of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Lim Kia Tong, the High Commissioner of Malaysia Dr. Azfar Mohamad Mustafar, representatives of Sport Singapore and football initiative Unleash The Roar!
“I am putting my indelible stamp of approval for such a brilliant and wonderful book,” said Mr Lim.
“The Sport Heritage team is aligned with the motivation behind ROAR. There is a strong desire to portray the experiences of past sportsmen and women in a way that will inspire young and old today. It is important that we continue to have a concerted effort in rediscovering the legacy of Singapore’s sporting heroes so that their contributions are celebrated over time,” said Deputy Director of Sport Heritage at Sport Singapore and author of Sport in Singapore: the colonial legacy Nick Aplin.
An author’s testament of love for the game
Mr Raju’s passion for writing was ignited when he joined The Straits Times in 1979. His letters to the Sports View column were published regularly from 1979 to 1981. After leaving the broadsheet, he kept close contact with football and those in the game by regularly contributing to sports forums.
Mr Raju credited the late Isa Bakar as the man behind the book. The former Penang FC and Malaysian national team striker had, at the Singapore Recreational Club (SRC) on 14 February 1998, encouraged Mr Raju to write a book for Malaysian football legends. This was on the back of Mr Raju’s first book on Terry Pathmanathan.
“He even invited me to stay in his house in Penang for six months and offered to take care of all my needs. He also offered to introduce me to Royalties. I was emotionally overwhelmed by the kindness he showered upon me. But I had to politely decline him as I had a full time career with Standard Chartered Bank then. However, I took his words seriously and started working on his proposals, just for my own personal satisfaction. When I started working on this project, all the research I had done over the years on the Malaysian football legends came in handy,” said Mr Raju.
An equally important person to the development of the book is its editor Gary Koh.
“Initially we had wanted to work on specific players and officials based on the themes and had interviewed R. Suriamurthi to talk about his football mentor Uncle Choo Seng Quee and veteran photojournalist Jerry Seh during the Malaysia Cup days. However these were put aside once a decision was agreed on the revised direction where we looked at the overview of the history,” he said.
Mr Koh is an experienced Singaporean football journalist who began writing in 2004 and has been published in local and international football sites like magazine FourFourTwo. He hopes the book will shine a light on the lesser known people and places which have shaped Singapore’s national football history.
Writing the book meant months of painstaking research and interviews of former national players. While many sporting records have been lost over the years, Mr Raju and Mr Koh trawled through and weaved the hundreds of newspaper clippings for the story of Singapore football.
“What I had learnt about Singapore football over those months was mind blowing. After completing the book, I realised that what I knew before was only a small fraction — at most 10 per cent of what was written,” said Mr Koh.
While meticulous newspaper clippings were kept from more than a century ago, possibly a number of copies were missing due to loss or damage over the years, particularly those before the 1960s.
A common example of “lost” information Mr Koh said, would be the name of line-ups for local league matches and even national team matches for men and women.
“I could not find any information on the line-ups and the finalised team list in the archives on microfilm for the first Asian Cup qualifiers for our men in 1959. But I managed to find the 1954 Asian Games squad list after much effort. Similarly, information for the experimental women’s tournament The Straits Times Cup was scarce, partially due to the lack of space in copies and the slow speed in which news was relayed due to demand of more high-profile local and overseas sports news of the day,” he added.
The project manager from publisher Pagesetters Service Ng Kah Gay said the book is a “symbolic handover” of Mr Raju’s “memories” and Mr Koh’s “documentation work to the people in and of football”.
“The author’s and editor’s love of football and their work on ROAR celebrate the work of footballers,” said Mr Ng.
ROAR: Legends never die
Mr Chia Boon Leong, 97, one of Singapore’s most successful soccer stars and the only Singaporean to have played football at the Olympics where he represented China at the 1948 London Games was also present at the launch.
An artefact titled Twinkletoes honouring Chia was unveiled on the pitch before kick off. The sculpture, a plastic cast of Mr Chia’s left foot, was commissioned by Sport Singapore and crafted by sculptor Baet Yeok Kuan, and will be temporarily displayed at the stadium.
At the sound of the first whistle, the hands of time then rolled back at the Jalan Besar Stadium as the old boys in blue and yellow marched out from the tunnel to grace the field once more, towkay (Hokkien for boss) Datuk Soh Chin Ann being the oldest at 72.
“We are humbled to be a part of this historic book commemorating 100 years of Singapore football history. Singapore and Malaysia share many great moments on the pitch as competitors, but we are best friends off the field. We look forward to reminiscing about the glorious past and enjoying the priceless bonds between us,” said the former defender from Malacca.
“The former nationals are happy to be remembered and they look forward to welcoming our dear friends from across the Causeway. The launch of ROAR will bring back lots of memories. With good sponsors, perhaps some day we can have a Veterans Cup,” said Mr Ho Kwang Hock, 67, who helped organise the Singapore veterans.
The former striker, who was a member of Singapore’s victorious Malaysia Cup team in 1977, used to be affectionately known as ‘Ah Siao’ (Hokkien for crazy) for his spirited nature and immense passion.
Once again the Kallang Roar echoed through the stands at the Jalan Besar Stadium as faithful fans cheered and chanted old tunes like satu nada to welcome the veterans back onto the pitch.
“It feels great being able to watch them on the pitch again. I got to get a glimpse of the past through these legends,” said 22-year-old Aiman Rifqi who has not watched the veterans live before.
“This book is not done by me alone, I have an excellent team behind me to bring this book to a different level and credit should go to the whole team,” said Mr Raju.
He added: “We gather in the spirit of friendship and brotherhood, to celebrate the ties and shared heritage between our two peoples. Together, we will keep the faith in this beautiful game.”