SINGAPORE: It is typically sad when we hear of someone passing away but when the deceased was a genuine household name the loss reverberates on many levels. Unfortunate occurrences such as these really gives time to pause and reflect.
Even those of us not from Singapore or who don’t follow football have cause to know Salim Moin and lament his death, announced by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on Saturday (Nov 7). At 59, his end came too soon.
Here was a national sportsman who played close to 200 times for Singapore in the Malaysia Cup, South East Asian (SEA) Games, the Merlion Cup and also World Cup qualifiers from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.
For a generation of fans in the country, when they switched on the television or went to the stadium to support the Lions, the midfielder was there.
AN ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER
The late Salim was a classy midfielder - a playmaker with an ability to score from anywhere on the pitch and famed for the accuracy and venom of his long shots. Of the 63 goals he scored for Singapore, there are many that stand out.
Making his Malaysia Cup debut in 1980 as he helped the Lions lift the prized trophy for just the second time in 15 years was an early highlight.
The four he scored against the Philippines in the group stage of the 1983 SEA Games showed his prowess in front of goal with striker Fandi Ahmad getting the other - the pair had a great understanding on the pitch.
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He was modest too. “I’ve no magic in my feet or boots,” he said. “My teammates made the perfect passes and all I had to do was take my chances well.”
He was deemed too young to take part in Singapore’s campaign to qualify for the 1982 World Cup and did not make the final squad that went to Hong Kong to draw with the hosts and lose 1-0 to North Korea.
He was banned from action - more of that later - for the 1986 attempt to qualify for the World Cup, which was thwarted by Japan and the North Koreans once more.
Salim was in the team on the road to 1990 and scored against Malaysia and Nepal when finishing in third in a group that was topped by South Korea.
But there was also controversy. In September 1983, the midfielder and five other players, assaulted referee M Kunalan - who was also a police officer - in a President's Cup match that had to be abandoned. The star was soon banned from football for an incredible six years.
The nation was split. In June 1985, one fan wrote to The Singapore Monitor demanding that he be brought back to the fold. “I am sure he has been punished enough. I can’t imagine having a stronger team than having Fandi Ahmad and Sundramoorthy up front and Salim, Pathmanathan and Ahmed Paijan at midfield.”
The writer was told by the editor that the ban was not imposed without reason and that it was too soon to end it. “Bringing Salim back at this point will blunt the edge of the campaign against soccer violence.” Similar arguments were played out in other publications.
The decision to suspend the last four years of his ban came in August 1985, after his third appeal. “It’s just like being released from prison,” said the player. “Of course, the two-year absence has been a good lesson for me. I’ll never make that mistake again.”
Salim was quickly back in the team and continued to run games, pull strings and set tempos until 1993. So intelligent had he been as a player that it was no surprise when he soon moved into coaching.
The list of S-League clubs that had been managed by the former midfielder is impressive: Gombak United, Balestier Khalsa, Woodlands Wellington, Tampines Rovers and Hougang United. He was a major figure in Singaporean football.
A FORGOTTEN ERA
Looking back now at old newspapers and footage, it is hard even for a non-Singaporean such as myself not to feel a certain nostalgia. Salim was a star; and it was not just him. Other icons such as Fandi Ahmed, David Lee, Malek Awab and V Sundramoorthy appeared alongside him many times.
These were names that meant something to everyone in Singapore – the days when local footballers counted as much as anyone else famous in the country - in a way that does not seem to be the case these days.
As mentioned above, his two-year ban was a major and long-running issue in the media. It was a cause of much debate and controversy.
Looking back now, two things stand out: How harsh the ban was is the first. There is no excuse for assaulting the referee but a six-year punishment does seem a bit much. The second thing was how much people seemed to care about it.
While that issue divided the public, Salim was one of a cohort of players who weren’t just footballers. They brought the nation together.
Whether it was winning the Malaysia Cup or competing in the SEA Games and Merlion Cups, Singapore games were nation-stopping events and full of star players. The Lions seemed more central to everyday life than is the case in modern times.
That is perhaps why a bigger deal should be made of these legends when they are still with us. Football is such a fast-moving industry that the greats of the past can be almost forgotten until they pass away.
The famous example in England is of Bobby Moore. The captain of the 1966 World Cup winning team struggled for work in the game and by the time he died in 1993 was working as a match-day pundit on regional radio.
Yet the news of his death was huge with the silence at stadiums in his honour and the length of tributes he received on television, radio and in print in contrast to the recognition or appreciation he received in his later years.
Now there is a charity in his name that raises millions for cancer research, a stand named after him at his former club West Ham United and the famous road to Wembley Stadium, where Moore lifted that golden trophy 54 years ago, is called Bobby Moore Way.
It would be great if these accolades and recognition could be bestowed during the lifetime of such legends but that is often just the way it is.
While posthumous recognition is common for artists, writers and thinkers, whose contributions may take longer to be impactful, the influence and results that sportsmen and footballers produce tend to be more immediate.
So why wait until the person is no longer with us before we recognise and celebrate his achievements collectively? It doesn’t make sense.
We have seen reports before of how Singapore’s former footballing heroes slip into oblivion, sometimes in need of employment and financial help, while others labour away at non-football related lower-skilled jobs.
Unlike footballers in many other parts of the world, it is not as if Singapore’s footballing heroes were able to earn a fortune during their short playing careers – enough to sustain them well after they hung up their boots.
I wonder if more can be done for this group of players to at least recognise their achievements so that they can be brought back to the fore of our memories.
After all, they played a useful, but understated, role in nation-building as tens of thousands of Singapore thronged weekly at the National Stadium sharing – regardless of ethnic, religious, economic and educational differences – to share in their nation’s rejoices and despair.
As for Salim, unfortunately Singapore has a missed opportunity to celebrate his contributions. Still, Singapore should posthumously recognise him and set a template to follow for our other sporting heroes.
There are things that could bear his name such as sporting scholarships, charities and awards which could all make a difference and have a lasting legacy.
They not only pay tribute to the player and the man but they bring fans together and remind us that the legends of the beautiful game were once household names in Singapore too.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).