The first Tiger to roam abroad: Malaysia's first professional and export 'Johnny' Wong Kong Leong

Johnny Wong Kong Leong, Malaysia
Futbol Cult
He was the first Malaysian to play abroad, play professionally, and to command a transfer fee. He was 'Johnny' Wong Kong Leong.

Malaysian players are generally not an adventurous lot, preferring to stick to plying their trades in the Malaysian league, but that does not mean that none of them has ventured abroad.

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Most recently, teenage star Luqman Hakim Shamsudin became the latest Malaysian player to seal a move abroad, to Belgian first tier side KV Kortrijk.

But the Malaysian footballer considered to be the first to play abroad came decades ago, in the nascent days of the country's independence, when its name was still Malaya, and its inhabitants were referred to as Malayans.

Wong Kong Leong first came to prominence in 1955, almost four decades before professional football began in the country, trialling for Perak's Malaya Cup (now Malaysia Cup) team alongside his Anglo-Chinese School schoolmate George Cumming and other youth players. The 19-year old inside-left, a position now referred to mostly as second striker, however was only first mentioned to have played in a Malaya Cup match in the 1956 campaign, in a 5-3 defeat to Perlis that saw the Bos Gaurus include seven school boys on their matchday squad.

It is worth mentioning that at the time, no nationwide league was contested yet (something that would only begin in 1979), and the cup as well as its qualification stage (essentially the group stage) had been the only major nationwide competition in the country.

1957 would be the year when things clicked into place for Kong Leong and Perak, but the footballing year began tragically for the state. Three of their players lost their lives in a car accident while travelling home after a cup group match away to Perlis in early August. The state association's initially planned to withdraw from the competition, but the Malayan FA persuaded it to continue competing.

Perak's need to rely on its youngsters in turn became its strength, when the young side qualified for the semi-finals by surprising favourites Pulau Pinang 3-1 in a cup replay tie, Kong Leong netting their first two goals in the away match. They then brushed past Kelantan 6-1 in the semis, to set up a final encounter against Selangor, in the first cup final to be played at the newly-built Merdeka Stadium.

The Red Giants were the massive favourites, featuring the likes of future 'King of Football' Ghani Minhat as well as the great Edwin Dutton, but it was Perak who played with confidence in the final. They dictated the pace, allowing 18-year old Ramadas Rao's brace to put them 2-0 up at halftime. Selangor quickly but clawed their way back into the game to level the game after the interval, but Perak remained dominant. Ramadas turned provider with 15 minutes left, allowing Kong Leong to strike home the winner. The goal gave Perak their third Malaya Cup title at the time, and they were the first winners of the tournament after Malaya's independence on 31 August 1957.

By right, the Ipoh-born player should have become a star after the triumph, but Kong Leong instead decided to focus on his studies, opting to further his studies in the field of accountancy at the Sydney Technical College, in Sydney, Australia, in March the following year. "My studies and my future must come first," he said in a newspaper interview

Even his academic pursuit could not deter the Malayan FA from calling him up for the Asian Games, just a month after he arrived in Australia, although he and his country ultimately did not turn in noteworthy performances in the multi-sport event that was held in Tokyo, Japan.

Ironically, in initially stepping away from serious footballing activities, he instead ended up etching his name in the pantheon of Malaysian football as a trailblazer; the first Malaysian footballer to play abroad.

According to an Australian account, after a stint with part-time team of Chinese students that called themselves the Wings in Sydney's Metropolitan League, in 1959 Kong Leong, who was by then called 'Johnny' Wong, was signed by North Side United as the only Asian player in top-flight football at the time.

In 1962 he was reportedly bought by Apia Leichhardt, according to veteran journalist Devinder Singh, effectively also becoming the first Malayan/Malaysian player to command a transfer fee. He was also Australia's first Asian import player (although the source from The Guardian erroneously referred to him as a Singaporean).

Relatively little is known about his time in Australia, but during his stint at Apia, they won the 1964 National Premier Leagues NSW, the 1964 and 1965 National Premier Leagues NSW Grand Finals, and the 1962 Waratah Cup. Records show him scoring in the 1963, 1964 and the 1965 editions of the Australian Cup, as John Wong.

His time in Australia ended in abrupt fashion in January 1966, when he returned abruptly to Malaysia due to visa issues. He also rejoined Perak, as well as the national team of his country for that year's Merdeka Tournament (Malaya had become Malaysia in 1963 with the inclusion of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak).

But he did not remain long in Malaysia, when he signed with Hong Kong side Tung Sing in March 1966, and he played with them for about a year.

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In 1967, 10 years after his winning goal in the final handed Perak their third Malaya Cup title, Kong Leong led them to their fourth title, this time as a 31-year old, edging Singapore 2-1 in extra time of the final match. If in 1957 the Bos Gaurus had been the first team to win the cup at the Merdeka Stadium, in 1967 they were the first team to win the cup that had been renamed the Malaysia Cup.

He made sporadic appearances afterwards for Perak and Malaysia, and reportedly went to work for the British government in Hong Kong.

This article was written thanks to historical sources from Singaporean newspapers of the era such as The Straits Times and Berita Harian.