If only the Malaysian sports fraternity had more sportsmen like hockey goalkeeper Zulkilfi Abbas, we would have excellence athletes and who are equally successful in their career.
Zulkilfi, who retired from playing international hockey after the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, said that his simple philosophy of making the best of an opportunity given to him, has seen him become a very satisfied and contended person both in sports and career.
Zulkilfi who turns 59 on March 2, is currently the Health Director at the Majlis Perbadanan Klang (MPK) and will be retiring next year after 40 years of service with his first and only employer.
He started his employment as casual worker when he joined them in 1976.
In 1978, he attended a diploma course at the Health Institute and returned to work as an officer. He diligently worked his way up to be appointed as Director of the Health division five years ago.
Footballer turned hockey goalkeeper
Zulkilfi’s first love was football following the footsteps of his father who played football in the Selangor League for a well-known Kampong Baru team called Dynamos.
“I played as a midfielder for my school team – Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) Klang) - in 1973 and 1974 and represented the Selangor Combined School,” recalled Zulkilfi the seventh in a family of ten.
“Then in 1975, the school hockey team were without a goalkeeper. They wanted to find one from the football team and the hockey captain Serjeet Singh, picked me.
“I have never played hockey in my life let alone as a goalkeeper. But somehow I got the hang of it.”
The ACS team played in the Klang hockey league too and it was in the match against MPK, that coach C. Paramalingam spotted him.
“Serjeet after the match, told me that coach Param wanted to see me.
“I did not have a clue on why Param wanted to see. I did not even know him. But I went to see him. He asked me if I wanted to play for MPK and said that I had potential as hockey goalkeeper. And the rest is history as I joined them after school.
“I was to report to Chetty Padang where MPK trained and it was here I was moulded to become the country’s No 1 goalkeeper.
“It was also this ground that produced the liked of late Sukhvinderjeet Singh, S Sivabalan, Abdul Rahi Ahmad, Zulkifli Zainal, Mohd Jailani Jamil, S. Prabaharan, M. Shanmuganathan, S. Sivabalan and K. Ghandinesan to name a few.”
Zulkilfi said that MPK rose from no-hopers to champions under Param.
“I can still remember the days when we went for our league matches in the MPK lorries. In the morning it will send the MPK workers and in the afternoon we used it to travel for our matches.
“We used to leave for our matches so that our opponents who all came in buses, would not see us,” recalled Zulkifli with a laugh.
“But all that changed with us emerging champions and we were given a bus.”
Zulkifli said Param told him that he would make the national team and could not believe it when he was called up for the 1st Junior World Cup squad to train under (Datuk) R. Yogeswaran and then went to play in my first Sea Games in the Kuala Lumpur in 1977, only after a year of playing hockey.
Zulkilfi said that Param told him that how far he intended to go in the game depended on himself and no one else.
“That words of wisdom was my philosophy of life. In everything I did, I gave my best and aimed for the highest and it had stood well for me.”
There was no looking for Zulkifli as he went to represent the nation in three Sea Games (1977, 1979 and 1983) winning gold medals, New Delhi Asian Games where he won a bronze, two World Cups – 1978 Argentina (finished 10th) and 1982 Bombay (10th) and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (11th).
Zulkilfi is from Pandamaran Jaya, the same village as the late football goalkeeper R. Arumgam came from.
“At the 1977 Sea Games, the country’s top goalkeepers in hockey and football came from Pandamaran Jaya. It must be a rare feat.”
After ending his playing days in 1984, Zulkilfi was involved in coaching under Yang Siow Meng together with fellow teammates Stephen Van Huizen, Colin sta Maria, Yahya Atan and Kevin Nunis – as instructors for the Level 3 coaching syllabus.
Param again played another role in moulding Zulkilfi as a coach when he got the latter to coach the Selangor Razak Cup team. Zulkilfi went to taste national assignment as assistant coach cum manager to Yogeswaran the coach and Yahaya Atan the manager for the Junior World Cup in Hobbart in 2001.
Zulkifli then assumed the role as national manager with Paul Lissek as the coach for the Busan Asian Games in 2002 and the Olympic qualifier in Madrid for the Greece Olympics.
“I totally isolated myself from hockey after 2002 to concentrate on my career. I am very lucky to have had an employer like MPK who gave me time for hockey and it was time I repaid their kindness.
“Besides, there had to life after hockey and with a family I had to concentrate on my career,” said Zulkilfi who is married to Norsiha Ab Rahim and has three sons Faizu Ashraff (33), Faizul Eshan (28) and Faizul Reza (24).
“And I am glad I had a career to go back too. I worry for many of the players today who are professionals. What will happen to them after hockey. They can coach but not all are cut out to be coaches.
“I am glad the likes of goalkeeper S. Kumar, Saiful Zaini, Madzli Ikmar and Mohd Rahim all held on to their jobs and can make a career after their playing days.”
Most memorable moment
“It has to be the 1982 Bombay World Cup match against Holland where the world best penalty flick taker, Paul Litjens, had five penalty against me and I saved four,” said Zulklfi with a broad smile.
“But Malaysia lost that match 2-1, but personally it was great satisfaction of having done so well against Paul.”
Most unforgettable moment
“It was the Bombay World Cup too, when I suffered a hairline skull fracture in the match against Great Britain. I was in ICU for 76 hours. It was very lucky escape because I could have been blinded,” said Zulkifli.
“Then, goalkeepers did not wear helmets and after incident FIH studied he reports and made it mandatory that goalkeeper wear helmets.
“I suppose I created history in hockey too,’ boasted Zulkifli.
Zulkifli, however came back to play in the 1984 LA Olympics.
“Although I came back to play in the Olympics with great determination because I did not want to end my career without an Olympic outing, but I decided to quit after that because the incident was still at the back of mind and haunting me.”
Most frustrating moment
“It was the Esanda World Invitational tournament in Melbourne in 1983. We were playing Germany and with 1 second before the buzzer went the umpire awarded a penalty stroke and time was stopped and it showed 1 second left. The scoreboard showed 1 second left, Germany 2 and Malaysia 3,” recalled Zulkilfi.
Germany scored and in extratime to beat Malaysia 4-3.
“Till today, I cannot believe the stop watch stopper had stopped time with a second to go when the umpire blew for the penalty corner. If was delayed by a second, the final buzzer would have sounded and we would have defeated Germany.
“That incident thought me how precious one second can be.”
Zulkifli said hockey had taught many things from patience, meeting people, handling media, being humble, conversing, administration and above always keeping a low profile and feet firm on the ground.
“What I am today I owe it to hockey and my coach Param. If not for the game and Param, I don’t know what I would have turned out to be. Maybe a Mat Rempit,” laughed Zulkilfi loudly.