What a shame the first ASEAN Football Championship kicked-off in 1996 when Zainal Abidin Hassan was at the cusp of hanging up his boots for Malaysia.

He was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) but at the age of 35 it meant the region would be unable to see him play again in a tournament that was to quickly establish itself as the “World Cup of Southeast Asia”.

Here we profile one of Malaysia’s football legends and the memorable impact he made on the first ASEAN Football Championship.

Age: 56

Clubs: Selangor, Pahang

International appearances (Goals): 138 (78)

ASEAN Football Championship appearances: 1996

Giants and Elephants

It was strictly a case of one country, two clubs for Zainal during his stellar playing days – which spanned two decades, starting in 1980.

A household name in Malaysia, he started his career at Selangor and then transferred clubs in the following identifiable pattern: Pahang, Selangor, Pahang, Selangor. 

It all began in 1980 when he started playing for Selangor at the age of 18, and in his first spell for the “Red Giants”, he scored 21 goals in 41 competitive matches. Selangor claimed the Malaysia Cup in 1981 and 1982.

In 1983, Zainal moved to Pahang, and in his one year with the Elephants, he scored 13 goals and helped them capture the Malaysia Cup.

Despite the success, in 1985 he returned to Selangor and a year later helped the state where he was born to victory in yet another Malaysia Cup final.

In 1987, the striker’s success in front of goal was to increase even more when Dollah Salleh joined Selangor and Malaysia’s most famous strike partnership began to terrorize defenses.

Not surprisingly, when Zainal moved back to Pahang in 1991, Dollah followed, as did the silverware. They captured the 1992 Malaysia Cup and Division 1 title, when Fandi Ahmad was also part of the side dubbed the “Dream Team”.

In 1995 they again claimed Division 1, with Zainal and Dollah scoring 131 goals between them.

Come 1997 and the calling came to end his club career where it all started and he played for Selangor for two more seasons.

International Fame

Domestic success, which is something of an understatement, quickly led to his introduction to the international stage. 

He made his debut for Malaysia in 1984 and along with Dollah they led their country to victory in the SEA Games on home soil in 1989 – which was their first success in that event in 10 years.

But Zainal left one of his best achievements to last and helped his country reach the final of the inaugural ASEAN Football Championship in Singapore in 1996.

At the tail-end of his career, he showed his mastery, and to a certain extent his age, by playing as centre-back in the tournament.

The Malaysian Tigers faced the daunting task of having to play a Thai team led by star striker Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang, and a Singapore side fronted by their maestro Fandi Ahmad in Group B.

However, in their opening match against the Lion City – in front of nearly 45,000 fans at the National Stadium in Kallang – Zainal’s team showed their mettle and drew 1-1. Fandi scored in the last minute of that game to deny Malaysia a famous victory.

After Malaysia had thumped Philippines 7-0, they faced a crunch match again the powerful Thailand team.

The unstoppable Kiatisuk put Thailand 1-0 up in the first half but Zainal came to his country’s rescue, and drawing on his natural goal scoring instinct, he equalised with half an hour remaining.

Magnificent in defence, magnificent in attack, Zainal ensured Malaysia had secured a vital point as soon after Singapore lost to Thailand meaning they failed to progress from the group.

A comfortable 3-1 triumph over Indonesia in the semi-final set up a rematch with Thailand in the final. Kiatisuk again struck early for his team but this time neither Zainal nor his team-mates could find the Thai net.

Although denied victory, Malaysia left the tournament brimming with pride and confidence and with Zainal given the MVP Award.

Coach Zainal

Following his decorated playing days, Zainal went into coaching and earned his first gig at the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) as national under-17 coach before briefly becoming senior team assistant coach.

He went back to Pahang as coach in 2004 and won the FA Cup in 2006. He later served Pahang in various roles before returning as head coach in 2014, this time winning the FA Cup and Malaysia Cup.