Malaysian footballer Soh Chin Ann has 195 recognised international appearances. Photo: Twitter
Tobias Zuser
Tobias Zuser

Recognising Malaysia’s Soh Chin Ann as the world’s most-capped footballer is long overdue – as is Fifa’s nod to the Olympics

  • Soh’s 195 validated appearances aren’t just a record, they provide an insight into the importance of football to national identity in postcolonial Asia
  • He was part of teams that twice qualified for the Olympics – a non-Fifa tournament – and helped bring Malaysia’s multi-ethnic reality to the foreground
Earlier this month, Fifa, the governing body of world football, released an updated list of their Century Club – an exclusive honour roll for players that have represented their nation at least 100 times. While familiar names such as Spain’s Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal have cemented themselves among the ranks of the top 10 most-capped players in the world, the new No 1 was a bit of a surprise.
Malaysia’s Soh Chin Ann has finally been recognised for his achievements, close to four decades after his retirement in 1984, with Fifa validating 195 of his 222 recorded international appearances. This puts Soh 10 games clear of runner-up Bader al-Mutawa, a still-active Kuwaiti footballer who is on track to inherit the top spot.

The honour was a long time coming for Soh, but so was Fifa’s indirect acknowledgement of the importance of football in the cultural fabric of postcolonial Asia – where sport has long been a fertile ground for nurturing national identity. Players such as Soh became national role models, no small feat during the early years of independence; he earned his first cap for the national team in November 1969, at the age of 19, just six years after Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo united to become Malaysia.

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Needless to say, Soh has for decades been a footballing icon in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. However, as an ethnically Chinese Malaysian – a group which today makes up less than a quarter of the country’s population – his career path was probably as unusual in the 1960s as it would be nowadays.

Early on, he had to endure the careless misspelling of his name in the Malaysian and Singaporean press, where he was often referred to as “Soh Chin Aun”. There are whispers that the media may have regarded “Ann” as too feminine a name for a male player at the time, though the fact that journalists didn’t bother to correct the mistake points to an overall sense of indifference. But Soh focused on his performances on the pitch, which soon earned him a reputation as an outstanding defender for club and country.

A recurring theme in Soh’s memories of his glory years is how his race didn’t seem to matter to his teammates – to which the success of the Malaysian national team arguably contributed as well. This is not to say that discrimination was non-existent in society at the time. Rather, it was the juxtaposition of unity between sportsmen and the conflicts of everyday life that brought the multi-ethnic reality of Malaysian identity to the foreground.

As Singapore-based football writer Gary Koh explains, Chinese-Malaysian players such as Soh had a big impact: “He inspired a string of ethnic Chinese to play football in the 1980s and 1990s, including Lim Teong Kim, [the first Malaysian footballer to play in Europe]. Nowadays the national team has become predominantly Malay, but the national head coach and technical director are Chinese, part of Lim’s generation.”

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In 1971, Soh left Malacca, the club of his youth, to join Selangor, which soon looked like the national team in miniature – a club where the country’s best players could strengthen their bond on a daily basis. This is when Soh met his defensive partner Santokh Singh, who is also on the Century Club list with exactly 100 caps. The pair, a Malaysian Chinese and a Malaysian Sikh, soon became the sturdy backbone of the national team.

Occasionally, the players also talked about the environment that fostered the exceptional camaraderie at clubs such as Selangor. Up to six players were sharing a room, regardless of ethnic background or social class.

While Soh’s acceptance to the Century Club has turned him into a catchy global headline, it also reveals the extent to which his sporting achievements have been wilfully ignored.

Over the past 90 years, the World Cup has been the pinnacle of global football, but Fifa, knowing this, has long guarded the interests of its most powerful European and South American members by limiting the participation of teams from Asia. Mexico 1986 marked the first time that more than one Asian national team could qualify for the finals. The quota was raised to four for France 1998 – leaving 60 per cent of the world’s population still drastically under-represented.

A compelling argument can be made about how this allocation reflects the difference in quality across continents. But even so, with the long-standing disengagement of Asia – where football has been around for more than a century, but also gained particular momentum as means of expressing national identity in the early years of postcolonialism – Fifa did not seem particularly keen on changing the status quo for the World Cup. And this is where the other tournaments, including the Olympics, came in.

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The Olympic Games offers one of the rare opportunities for Asian countries to compete with the world’s best, while also offering much better odds for qualification than the World Cup. Japan and the Republic of China made their footballing debuts at the 1936 Games, and since the 1970s up to three Asian teams have regularly taken part in the quadrennial 16-team tournament.

When Malaysia’s national football team qualified for the Olympics in 1972 and 1980, Soh and his teammates became national heroes for the ages.

In 1971, Malaysia completely dismantled their opponents in qualifying for the Games, celebrating four consecutive wins over Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China, and the Philippines without conceding a single goal. In Munich a year later, the team was eventually defeated by West Germany and Morocco, but still celebrated a 3-0 victory over the USA, which made sure they did not finish last in their group.

Malaysia repeated their successful qualification run for Moscow 1980, remaining unbeaten throughout and defeating South Korea 2-1 in the play-off. However, that year Malaysia joined the long list of countries that decided to boycott the Games in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The team’s journey later inspired the 2016 hit Malaysian film Ola Bola, in which Soh has a cameo.

It took a while, but it seems Fifa has finally come to terms with the notion that a footballing career should not just be measured by appearances it has sanctioned. With its recognition of Soh as the world’s most-capped player, the governing body has legitimised the achievements of him and many other Asian players at the Olympics, a non-Fifa tournament, after long decades of restricting the number of Asian teams competing at the top level.

This is of particular note in the Malaysian context. Over the decades, racial politics have continued to dominate in the Southeast Asian nation, with analysts attributing the collapse of the multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition – which took power following a shock victory in the 2018 election – to allegations that the interests of the country’s Malay majority had been put on the back burner.

So while it is important that Soh is finally where he belongs, atop the Century Club, it is just as vital to note the presence of six other Malaysians on the list, namely Abdul Shukor Salleh, Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam, Zainal Abidin Hassan, and Santok Singh. Most of these players were contemporaries, with even the national career of Zainal – the youngest of the seven – overlapping with his older teammates.

Yes, this is a snapshot of a different time. But it’s also why Ola Bola captured the national imagination upon its release five years ago, and Soh’s No 1 position does today – they are both reminders that diversity is integral to Malaysia’s success, on and off the pitch.

Tobias Zuser is a lecturer at the Global Studies Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is editor in chief of local football website and co-host of the Hong Kong Football Podcast.