Malaysian soccer is trapped in a time-capsule — if not the game itself, then at least discussions around it. Few seem bothered about what the national side is doing now. It’s always about how glorious the past was. And that past cannot be debated without invoking Arumugam, the national team keeper from the 70s to the mid-80s. Aru wasn’t just a goal stopper. He was also “Spider-Man” — a moniker coined for his exceptionally long arms and ability to stretch beyond belief to catch the ball.

On December 18, 1988, a week to Christmas, the lights suddenly went out on this Malaysian goalkeeping angel. He was driving home pre-dawn that day, when he got into a fatal crash on the Federal Highway, just off capital city Kuala Lumpur.

Decades after, Aru is still fondly remembered in Malaysia’s footballing circles. The mere mention of him is enough to start a conversation that won’t stop soon anytime soon.

Arumugam Rengasamy was born on January 31, 1953, in Port Klang in Malaysia’s coastal state of Selangor.

Older fans of the game in Port Klang still go misty-eyed when asked about his brilliance between the sticks, according to a tribute on Aru that appeared on thesefootballtimes.co in 2019.

And they often had stories to share, says Sivan John, author of the tribute.

“We live in the age of the Marvel comic craze thanks to the revival of the Avengers mania, so anyone who’s nicknamed ‘Spiderman’ surely deserves some attention,” John wrote. “The name Arumugam is a synonym in Malaysia when it comes to the term ‘legend’. Whether holding a mic or guarding the goal, an entire nation knows his name, and with reason.”

John confesses being too young to personally know about Aru’s exploits in his heyday. His only memory of the legend was the  coverage that followed his death in 1988.

“He was all over the news,” John recalled. “I was only eight so at first I couldn’t tell what the fuss was all about. So I asked my uncle;  he told me that Arumugam had been involved in a car crash and apparently died on the spot.”

Like Aru, John’s uncle also played keeper during his younger years. “I could understand the affection he had towards him,” John said. “Above all else, I could tell that it was a poignant moment for everyone in the house. Not only had the Indian community lost a genuine role model; the nation had lost an icon.”

To get a better understanding of the man, the author took a drive to Port Klang to visit the place where it all began for Aru. The local football ground, renamed in Aru’s honor, is situated in a quiet area of industrial activity. The fans to the local games then were the first to bear witness to Aru’s artistry between the sticks. 

Aru was known for his hard-work and no-nonsense attitude on the field, John learned from those he spoke to.

During training, the keeper’s intensity and commitment won the respect and trust of his coaches from an early age. That sort of attentiveness, with unbreakable concentration, came to the fore on the pitch, helping him make crucial saves.

“What the military of the time would’ve given to have him guarding their bunkers!” John wondered in his tribute.

Aru didn’t necessarily have the look of a rugged footballer, John wrote. But he was lean and  had a penchant for long-distance running. His long arms allowed him to reach balls that many other keepers would’ve struggled for. Crosses, well-placed shots and penalties were all in a day’s work for him.

Aru’s agility and nimble footwork also made it difficult for attackers to decide their next move inside the six-yard box, and he would stay on his feet for as long as possible, trusting his reflexes and speed of movement when faced with a threat.

Alongside his ability at stopping the ball, Aru was an expert communicator. He barked instructions to team mates throughout the 90 minutes or more of a game to organize the defense of his goal. To him, goalkeeping was more than just the ball. Those at the end of his Roy Keane-style dressings down were only ever appreciative of his words. He commanded complete respect. 

Aru’s goalkeeping legacy began in 1971 when he was called to represent the Selangor team when he was 18. By the time he turned 20 in 1973, the national team was looking for a replacement in aging goalkeeper Lim Fung Kee. Aru stepped up to play for Malaysia.

Under Aru — and a host of football luminaries like Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun, and Santokh Singh who together formed the legendary Malayan Tigers — the country won many football titles.

The backbone of the national team was drawn from those who played for Selangor. The defence was marshaled by Santokh and Chin Aun, while Reduan Abdullah was the consummate midfield dynamo. Leading the attack was another of the nation’s favorite footballing son Mokhtar — also known as “Super Mokh”.

Aru and Selangor were a match made in heaven. His character and attitude endeared him to both fans and teammates, instantly winning respect. Selangor provided the backbone of the Malaysian national team. The relationship between two is akin to the way Ajax littered the great Dutch sides of the 1970s with talent.

Besides Aru, the 1970s were a time when Malaysia produced its fair share of outstanding goalkeepers, from his predecessor Lim Fung Kee to Peter Rajah. But as Selangor’s number one, Aru brought a different dimension to goalkeeping which was unprecedented. Looking back, at times he was like a Malaysian Hugo Gatti, in an era when global football coverage was limited at best.

Legendary commentator Hasbullah Awang once said that Arumugam would foray upfield at times, intent on joining the attack, such was his quality with the ball at his feet.

On one famous occasion, Aru and the Malayan Tigers made the likes of Brian Kidd, Alan Ball and Liam Brady suffer when a Malaysia select XI beat Arsenal 2-0 in 1975. In another game, he forced Diego Maradona to play at his very best to score against him when Boca Juniors came to town for a friendly in 1981.

After a career that spanned a decade, Aru was unofficially acclaimed best goalkeeper in Asia. He was given the gloves in a stellar cast that consisted of the continent’s best in 1982 as part of an Asia XI. Their opponents were a brilliant Brazil side featuring Éder and Toninho Cerezo in an exhibition game.

Aru flanked by Mokhtar Dahari, or “Super Mokh” on the right.

There were the two important titles those days — the Merdeka and Malaysia cups.

The Merdeka, or Freedom, Cup was a multi-national event that began with Malaysia and her Southeast Asian neighbors, and was expanded in later years to include Brazilian, African and East European teams.

With Aru, Malaysia won the Merdeka Cup in 1973, 1974, 1976, 1979 and 1986. It was the golden era of Malaysian soccer. The country was the most dominant in Southeast Asian football, with several of its players among the most respected names in Asia.

Aru also represented Malaysia in the 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1983 and 1985 SEA, or Southeast Asian, Games.

In the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, he helped Malaysia win a bronze medal.  With him as keeper, the nation also qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, but boycotted the event for political reasons. Since then, Malaysia never again qualified for the World Cup.

For Selangor, Aru helped his home state win the Malaysia Cup nine times between 1972 and 1988.

Aru recorded 196 caps in all, during his time with the Malaysia national team, falling just short of his personal goal of 200. He retired from the national team in 1986 after its Merdeka Cup win that year, to make way for someone younger to save the day for Malaysian football.

But retirement didn’t mean he hung up his boots or gloves.

He still turned up each weekend at Starbrite  Sporting Club, which he formed in 1983 to try and create players like him. The dream was, unfortunately, was cut short by his death.

But Aru’s career wasn’t all glory and smiles. He had to weather several storms too. When he was dropped in favor of another keeper, he proved his worth in training and won his place back. When he was accused of match-fixing in 1986, he fought back to prove his innocence.

Just before he retired in ’86, Aru had some unfinished business: to lift a trophy as team captain. That same year, he was given the privilege by Selangor to command the ship against Johor in the Malaysia Cup final. The Red Giants, as Selangor was known, smashed in six goals and Aru collected his last winners medal.

The retelling of Aru’s genius in soccer can be witnessed in ‘Ola Bola’, the 2016 film that chronicled the national team’s road to the 1980 Olympic qualifying round. Muthu Kumar, the keeper in Ola Bola, is unmistakably Aru.

Aru was only 35 when he died. His fans hope his legacy stays alive to keep the game alive in Malaysia. After all, as John wrote, legends never really die.

  • Adapted from a tribute in thesefootballtimes.co and other sources.
  • Images reproduced from thesefootballtimes.co and the Arumugam Fan Club on Facebook

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