Malaysia are a major force when it comes to Southeast Asian football. Six-time Southeast Asian Games gold medalists and perennial contenders in the AFF Suzuki Cup with one title earned in 2010, Malaysia’s winning pedigree and competence in football are things that cannot be denied.
Within such dominant national football squads, are heroes. Footballing legends who made their name while giving honour to their flag and country, showcasing the best of their abilities with the aim of winning. Such inspiring performances at the highest level were for everyone to see, inspiring football fans and young hopefuls.
One such legend for the famed Harimau is none other than Zainal Abidin Hassan.
A unique talent with an eye for goal
Regarded as one of the best, if not already the best, footballers in the country during the 1980’s and 1990’s, Zainal hailed from the state of Selangor. He began his professional footballing career at the senior level with his local club giants, FA Selangor, playing as a forward.
And from the onset he was able to immediately deliver the goods, racking up 21 goals in 41 appearances in his first two seasons with the club.
A 19-year club career spanned with alternating stints between FA Selangor and Pahang FA. As his playing years have come to conclusion, Zainal Abidin Hassan registered a highly impressive 193 goals in 367 appearances for a very respectable rate of approximately 0.54 goal per game.
A successful club career
A three-time Malaysia Super League winner (1980,1989,1990), with four Malaysia FA Cup titles (1981,1982,1986,1997), and two Malaysia FA Cups (1991, 1997) under his belt, such title haul proves that Zainal Abidin Hassan is a winner.
An ambassador for Malaysian football
But more importantly, aside from his fruitful club career, what further cements his place as a distinguished footballer in the Southeast Asian region are his services to his national team, the Harimau Malaya.
A total of 78 goals in 138 appearances (0.57 goal/game) is a goalscoring rate of high regard for one’s country. Although he might have been in a generation when Southeast Asian football was singlehandedly dominated by Thailand, he was part of the Malaysian team that was able to get a gold medal in the 1989 Southeast Asian Games.
As for his involvement with the AFF Championship, now known as the AFF Suzuki Cup, Zainal Abidin Hassan was part of the national squad that participated in the inaugural edition in 1996, scoring one goal and helping his side reach the final.
Despite ending the campaign with a painful 1-0 loss against Thailand at the final hurdle, the man from Selangor had been such a presence and a vital player for the Harimau that he was awarded the best player of the tournament.
Such an accolade in a groundbreaking competition was the best possible curtain call for his footballing career as a Harimau as 1996 proved to be his final year donning the national colours on the pitch. After that, he then switched briefly towards the court to play for Malaysia’s futsal team in the 1996 FIFA Futsal World Championship before hanging up his boots in international football for good.
A continuing legacy – a mentor for present and future heroes
Though it’s been years since Zainal Abidin Hassan’s retirement, he still is very much within Malaysia’s footballing sphere as a head coach guiding teams and moulding present and future footballing heroes.
Having past coaching stints with the club where he started his career, FA Selangor, and currently, with Penang FA, it is with Pahang where he was able to achieve the most success as “the gaffer” as he was able to seize a domestic cup double in 2014 (Malaysia FA Cup and Malaysia Cup) to add to a previous Malaysia FA Cup which he won in 2006.
Zainal Abidin Hassan, a player who already left an indelible mark in Malaysian football, continues to build his legacy, this time, as a mentor. And with such a sustained impact that he is providing for his country’s footballing landscape, he indeed is a true hero of the sport, and a role model not just to his country, but to the rest of Southeast Asia as well.