This story was written with the help of veteran sports journalist and long-time Kuala Lumpur fan Devinder Singh
A nationwide Malaysian league had been contested in various iterations for decades now, and fans would be forgiven for thinking that it had always been around. However, compared to other countries, the Malaysian league has only existed relatively recently.
The Malaysia Cup has been held among state teams annually since 1921, but only in 1979 were the first foundations of a nationwide football league laid.
How it was before 1979
Well before professional football was played in the country, most Malaysian footballers were amateurs in the state leagues, playing for government department teams or company clubs, while they earn a living working during the day for the department or company.
Those who excel in the leagues would then be called up to the state team by the state football association (much like how it is done at the national team level), to compete in the annual Malaysia Cup.
In the decade before the 1979 league was contested, the state teams, as well as the army side and the Singapore team, would be separated into two groups of five teams, with each team facing each group opponent home and away. (Selangor and Singapore, at the time deemed to be Malaysian football powerhouses, would be placed in separate groups) The top two teams of each group would then face off in the semi-finals, with the winners squaring off in the Malaysia Cup final.
How the 1979 league came about
A nationwide Malaysian league had been suggested for decades, but only in 1978 did it gain grounds. According to veteran journalist Rizal Hazhim, it was voiced by famed sports broadcaster Amran Hamid to then Malaysian FA (FAM) vice president Datuk Abu Bakar Daud.
One reason given for the league proposal to go ahead was to make the competition more exciting; "Teams such as Perlis, Kedah and Johor had not played each other in the Malaysia Cup for decades (as the two groups were decided geographically, North and South zones), so it was hoped that a single round-robin league that featured all the teams would generate more interest."
It was decided that instead of two groups in the Malaysia Cup group stage, all the teams would be placed in the same group. Furthermore, East Malaysian state teams of Sabah and Sarawak, newly-formed Federal Territory (now Kuala Lumpur) as well as neighbouring country team of Brunei would also join the group, taking the number of teams to 17. What had begun as an improved Malaysia Cup group stage essentially became the first Malaysian league.
All the teams would face each other once, with the top four finishers going on through to the two-legged semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup.
With teams playing each other only once in the group stage, the fixtures were arranged so that each team would play eight home matches, and eight away encounters each season.
A Singaporean newspaper report showed that preliminary scheduling placed the first 1979 matchday on January 5, while the final league matchday was on September 7, with the Malaysia Cup final scheduled on September 27.
It may not seem much these days, but the success in planning for the league was a monumental occassion back then.
One concern had at the time was to avoid overtaxing the players with the added number of matches, at a time when state footballers still had dayjobs and played in state leagues, while the Malaysia national team played in a lot more encounters in a single year. Competitions at other levels also had to be taken into account in scheduling the 1979 league matches.
Another issue was the travelling costs incurred by teams with the inclusion of the three Borneo sides. FAM got around this by providing travel subsidies to every team, while arranging the fixtures in a way that Borneo teams can play two or three Peninsular Malaysia teams consecutively everytime they cross the South China Sea, and vice versa.
The participation of Singapore too led to further complications in the league. Although the former Malaysian state separated in 1965, the republic continued to participate in the Malaysia Cup, its national team essentially competing (and excelling) as a state team. All the while, an amateur nationwide league had been contested for decades in the city-state. Although the Singapore FA (FAS) first asked that the 1979 league matches be scheduled on Fridays or Saturdays so that their own league matches can be held on Sundays, the issues mentioned above led to teams needing to play some matches on weekdays as well in the end.
How the 1979 season went
The match records are pretty hard to come by, but what is known now was that Singapore won the league/group stage that year with 27 points, three ahead of second-placed Sabah and second runners up Selangor. But Selangor would emerge triumphant in the Malaysia Cup final match, edging the Lions 2-0.
Trophy, or the lack off
Despite the success in organising the first nationwide league competition, Malaysian football's disregard towards the league remained to a certain extent. For example, only in the 1982 season was a league winner crowned officially, and even then, it was done out of necessity.
This was recalled to Goal by another veteran journalist, Devinder Singh. "At the time, the FAM wanted to send the Malaysia Cup winner as Malaysia's representative in the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Club Championship, but Indonesia and Singapore objected to this because they did not want to play against a state team.
"So to get around this, FAM nominated the league champions, and that year it was Pulau Pinang who topped the league competition. That was when they first began crowning league the champion officially."
Beginning in 1981, four more teams would advance to the knockout stage, with the Malaysia Cup phase starting in the quarter-finals.
A plan by Bakar to implement a two-tier league as early as the 1981 season only materialised in 1989, the first season of the semi-pro era, due to the teams' concern over missing out on financially lucrative match-ups against the favourite teams.