It is now taken for granted that the Malaysian league, especially the top two tiers, is contested mostly by professional state teams and players, since football professionalisation was introduced in the early 1990's.
But until three decades ago, almost all Malaysian players were amateurs, in a peculiar three-tiered playing system.
While in most footballing countries, footballers amateur and professional alike mostly play for club sides and those who make the cut would be called up to their national team, up until the 1990's, top Malaysian players would also feature in another tier, one that sat between the two; national-level football.
In a way, Malaysian state teams at the time would function as a national team, calling up the best players in the state every year. But instead of calling up their best stars to compete in the World Cup qualifiers or subcontinental tournament, the likes of Johor, Kedah and Selangor would instead compete against each other annually in the Malaysia Cup, and later in the Malaysian league too.
Back then, a top player would likely hold a day job at a company or governmental department while playing for its works team in the state league or FAM Cup (the FAM Cup was then contested exclusively by work and club teams). If he was good, he would also represent his state in the Malaysia Cup, while the best of the best would go on to earn a Harimau Malaya call-up.
While amateur football is hardly a peculiar feature in many countries, a domestic football that featured two concurrent levels has got to be a rare occurrence.
AFF Championship-winning former Malaysia head coach Datuk Rajagobal Krishnasamy is one such man who went through the system, and the 63-year old coach magnanimously spent some time recalling his experience to Goal, in a telephone conversation.
Rajagobal's Malaysia winning the 2010 AFF Championship. Photo from Getty
How it worked
"Back then, all the players who are now considered legends were employed and given job security by entities such as the state JKR (Public Works Department), port authorities, banks and PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation). Pulau Pinang and Malaysian legends, brothers Ali and Isa Bakar were employed and played as amateurs for the island's port authority, while Pahang legends Tajuddin Noor and Jamal Nasir played and worked for the Pahang JKR. And this did not only happen with footballers; athletes of other sports like field hockey and takraw too were hired by PKNS. That's how the system was back then.
"We only got paid for our day job at the time. When I was hired by PKNS, I started with a RM235 monthly salary. There would be bonuses of around RM50 or RM100 too. It may seem small now, but back then what was foremost was stability; even if we were dropped, we still had our day job to fall back on. We played football mainly as a passion. When I received RM500 for helping Selangor beat Singapore 4-0 in the 1981 Malaysia Cup final, I was over the moon, it was a huge sum of money at the time!
"My first role at PKNS was at the electrical storage department for five months, before I was reassigned to the electrical department, although I mostly did the designing because I wasn't a qualified technician. Some players were placed in the civil engineering department where they did quantity surveying, some did administrative duties. Most of us were handed office roles, but there were those who were in the workshop, maintaning PKNS' machines and vehicles.
"I would start work at eight in the morning, and after the work day was done at 4.30, it was time to attend training. I rode a motorcycle back then, which I could only afford after I was hired by PKNS. Training too differed. While preparing for the FAM Cup with PKNS we would train twice every day, but with Selangor it was only in the evening. This is different from how it is now, when pro players are expected to train twice every day.
"The football calendar was divided in two, which in a way was very, very funny. The earlier half of the year, until July, was when the Malaysia Cup was played, while the rest of the year was for the FAM Cup and the state league. But in general, state league matches were held on week days, while Malaysia Cup matches were played on Saturdays.
"But getting a national team call-up letter, alongside the likes of Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam, and Santokh Singh was an exciting time, because that meant going away on centralised camp for two weeks or a month. In the early 80's, three quarters of the Malaysia players were from PKNS. If Selangor were in the Malaysia Cup final, we would be exempted from work too, to attend centralised training for a week. And company higher ups and bosses would go easy on us so we could concentrate on playing sports.
— K.Rajagobal (RG) (@RajagobalRg) May 28, 2020
"It did not matter much to the fans in the 1960's, 70's and 80's, at a time when entertainment avenues were limited; even state league and FAM Cup matches would draw crowds, especially because these matches were played at open grounds and were not ticketed. Office hours would end at 4.15 or 4.30 pm, earlier than how it is these days, and fans would leave their work places to watch the matches from the side of the road, especially when the top players were going to feature. Every was football mad in those days!"
Although Rajagobal's playing days were well over when the semi-pro began days in 1989, and professional era kicked off in 1994, he eventually had to make the tough decision of turning professional, as a coach.
"I remained employed by PKNS for 22 years, until 2000. Despite guiding Selangor to the league championship as its head coach that year, my contract was not renewed and I received an offer from Kelantan. My coaching career was gaining momentum due to my title win the Red Giants, and I had the opportunity of doing it full-time.
"It was always a dream of mine, and I didn't want to have to stop coaching to return to work anymore. I was still working for PKNS while coaching Selangor, because the former were an affiliate of the latter. So I made the bold decision to take an early retirement. It was a risky decision by all definitions; what if after losing two matches at Kelantan they decided to sack me? I had two children at the time, one in Standard Six, the other in Form One or Two, and my pension would only begin coming in when I turned 50!
"Even to this day, I can get quite crazy. I'll be 64 years old in two months, and I'm still crazy over football. Don't take my word for it; go ask any of my former Malaysia charges how crazy I can get while coaching."
The man is fond of PKNS, where he would go on to return as head coach for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, stating that even during the amateur era, the club had a clear vision and direction, something that state teams have only begun emulating in the past decade.
"They had the drive back then, to develop players in a financially stable manner. In the last six years or so JDT (Johor Darul Ta'zim) have progressed, Terengganu FC are trying, while Selangor too are beginning their own next phase.
"In a way, these state teams are trying to emulate what came before them, what PKNS wanted to do."
Surprisingly, he disagrees with the suggestion often voiced by critics; that the Malaysian league should revert to the amateur or semi-pro system, due to Malaysian football's perceived failure to compete at the international stage.
"We can't compare the system back then with the one we have now. What needs to be gauged is today's players' characters, their discipline and passion towards the game.
"Football is the number one sport in the country, so we need to protect the welfare of the players and officials. Back then they could make a stable living from their day job.
"We cannot regress. The sport needs to keep thinking forward and find ideas to retain it (professional system). It needs to be able to identify footballers with the passion and drive for the sport."
The former AFF Championship-winning head coach is currently in the process of publishing his autobiography.