HE was, in a very rare achievement, voted Asia’s best goalkeeper five times in a row between 1966 and 1970 and he genuinely ranks as a world-class Malaysian footballer.
Chow Chee Keong was so awesome between the posts that when he went for a professional stint in Hong Kong he was nicknamed Asian Steel Gate (亞洲鋼門) and Crazy Sword (神經刀).
From schoolboy days, he was a goalkeeping prodigy, since he was an early exponent in karate, taekwondo and kung fu, which assisted him with his agility and daring movements.
In 1963, he represented Malaysian Under-20 level as a 13 year old. Two years later, he joined the first team at only 15. At that point, he was the youngest ever Malaysian international player.
The legendary No 1 passed away early Wednesday at University Malaya Medical Centre, Menara Utama, after doctors made last-gasp attempts to save him after severe heart failures. He was 70.
The death of Malaysia’s first professional footballer was announced by his son, Adrian Chow, in a Facebook post. Adrian said his father had “fought hard for a long time to stay with us” but lost the battle at about 7.00am.
Former Asian Football Confederation (AFC) general-secretary Datuk Peter Velappan describes him as a “remarkably outstanding goalkeeper, who ranks in the world-class bracket”. He says: “It is truly a deep regret Chow Chee Keong passed away due to health problems. He was truly one of Malaysia’s greatest No 1s.
“He played in the Malaysian Team AT the 1972 Munich Olympics and also at the 1976 Moscow Olympics, which Malaysia boycotted. He then moved to play in Hong Kong for several years and returned to Malaysia. He is married to the daughter of (former Secretary of FA Malaysia) Dato Kwok Kin Keng.”
Chee Keong hogged the headlines in 1968, when he came to Hong Kong with a Malaysian Chinese TEAM and many Hong Kong clubs instantly took notice of him. Two years later, he joined HK Rangers FC for three guest matches. Then, he moved to Jardine FC for a then-eye-catching salary of HK$2,500 per month, which was the Hong Kong record at that time.
However, a year later, Jardines withdrew from the Hong Kong League and he moved to South China AA where his career started to take off. For his three seasons, he was the rousing No 1 and won many trophies and personal awards.
He moved in 1974 to Tung Sing on a record HK$7,000 per month plus housing. In 1977, he returned to South China AA and a year later, he started to play in both Hong Kong and Malaysia simultaneously. In 1982, he finally returned to Malaysia and played for the national team for three years before hanging up his gloves.
One of his career highest points was playing against the legendary Brazilian striker Pele when Cruzeiro visited Hong Kong. He was naturally outstanding that the Brazilians quickly offered him a contract, which he turned down.
Golf was also very close to Chee Keong’s heart and after retiring from football, he took to serious golfing. In 1991, he finally earned a coaching license and started to teach in Malaysia. In 1995, he moved to a golf club in Shenzhen, China and in 1997, he returned to South China AA as a golfing instructor.
A former student of St. John Institution, he had the rare distinction of being the youngest player at every age-group level. He played in five Merdeka tournaments (1965 to 1969) and was in the Malaysian team which won the title in 1968.
Chee Keong says: “I was very lucky to have played with some of the greats of Malaysian football like Abdul Ghani Minhat, Robert and Richard Choe, Dali Omar, Ibrahim Mydin, Abdullah Nordin, Syed Ahmad to name a few. Being only 15, I was treated like a son and they taught me many things which made me a better player.
“I did my ‘A’ Levels in King’s College, England and went on to pursue a physical education course from 1966 to 1969. While I was there, I wanted to stay in touch with the game and (Datuk) Peter Velappan helped me get in touch with then-West Ham manager Ron Greenwood to ask if I could train with their junior team.”
Asked why he did not opt for a permanent stint in England, Chee Keong said it was difficult to “break into the system in England” and he was already fortunate to have had those temporary stints with West Ham.
MISSED BRAZIL STINT
“I had a golden opportunity to play football in Brazil when I was in Hong Kong. Cruzerio FC came for a friendly match and they had Emerson Leao, one of the all-time best Brazilian goalkeepers,” recalls Chee Keong. “The local newspapers started to compare me with him, but in the end he did not play. It was after the game that I was approached to join the team.”
Chee Keong always privately moaned the way he was “mistreated” when he turned professional. Many felt he was simply lured by money instead of loyalty to Malaysia.
“Many called me a traitor to the nation, but nobody asked why I left to become a professional,” he says. “Firstly, for any footballer to improve, he has to play in a foreign league. Secondly, I did not come from a rich family. I needed money and it was a career. But I still returned to play for Malaysia when required in invitational tournaments.
“And when I returned from my pro stint, I remember writing a four-part series in a local newspaper, underlining the ills of Malaysian football, the way to go forward with a professional setup and management. My main contention was that for a professional league, it had to be run by professionals from a different entity and not FAM.
“It did not go down well with FAM and I was severely criticised, such as what gave me the right to speak of professional football after playing in Hong Kong for a few years.”
He always believed Malaysian and Singaporean players should strive to play overseas because “the better players play in professional leagues outside their home country”. He adds: “That is the only way to improve one’s game and all the challenges they are faced with, will only make them better regional players.
“It is sad that I hear that many Malaysian players who have had the opportunity to go overseas have returned, majority moaning about weather conditions, food, language, missing home and not being able to stand the tough training or blending with the team.
“As long as this continues, Malaysian players are not going to improve and reach high standards just playing at home.”
The prolonged stretch of critical whacks from football pundits broke the proverbial camel’s back and Chee Keong decided to move on to golf “not to just play but make it my career”. He adds: “I was a two-handicapper at one stage, but I was more interested in attending golf coaching and management courses and eventually started coaching in Hong Kong and China for 10 years before returning to coach in Malaysia.”
Married to Christina Kwok, the daughter of former FAM (Football Association of Malaysia) secretary, the late Datuk Kwok Kin Keng (1951-1980), Chee Keong has a son, who was a national ice-hockey goalkeeper and avid paint-ball player.
“Despite some disappointments in life, I’m still a very happy and contented person doing what I love with a happy family.”
Like Malaysia and Singapore, he says, what’s lacking are “passionate sports-loving personalities to take their sports to the highest level possible”.
He says: “Malaysia is very lucky to have loyal fans who pack the stadium week in and week out despite the poor quality of football dished out. It is about time that something is done for the fans so that they get their money’s worth.
“Right now they are being cheated as the football is of poor quality. The governing body, the coaches and players have an obligation to treat the fans to better quality games. These people have to remember that the day the fans decide to walkout on them, they will be playing to empty stadiums and the football will fall flat in country.
His final words: Never ever take the football fans for granted.
RIP Chow Chee Keong.
You always spoke from the heart without fear or favour and proved with your No 1 jersey that you can be a Made-in-Malaysia world-class player, if you put your heart and soul to what you want to achieve.
• Suresh Nair is a sports journalist who interviewed Chow Chee Keong after his retirement in the late 1970s and found him to be a rare breed of Malaysians with a distinctive foresight to professional football.