A third former Singapore footballer in recent months lost the fight to cancer with “Kallang Roar” 1970s hero-striker Yunus Baba on Saturday, joining the ranks of Amin Nasir and Lim Chiew Peng.
Family and friends who visited Yunus when he was at the Singapore General Hospital to pay their final farewells when his condition got death-threatening, paid tribute to the 66-year-old, who never showed the painful climax but always encouraged them to make the best of every day.
Like the never-say-die striker of “Kallang Roar” fame of the late 1970s, who was also player-coach of South Avenue Football Club, he fought his prolonged cancer holding his head high.
Yunus passed away Saturday morning as slowly but surely, he silently lost the fight to Hodgkin disease (Hodgkin lymphoma), a type of lymphoma, a cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are part of the immune system.
Doctors say that the cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body.
Condolences came locally and internationally with former Malaysia Cup striker-hero Arshad Khamis, now settled in Chilliwack in British Columbia, Canada since the early 1990s, praising Yunus as a “dedicated and hardworking footballer”.
“We were the same age and despite playing for the smaller clubs, Yunus proved with his height and scoring power that he could be a worthy international striker,” says Arshad. “I’m shocked to hear of his death although I knew he was battling an advanced stage of cancer.”
Samad Allapitchay, the hero-skipper of the Malaysia Cup-winning 1977 team, says: “I admired the way Yunus battled cancer, the same way he was an outstanding striker. He was a ‘never-say-die’ player, who gave more than 100 per cent in the field of play. I regret very much I lost a very good friend, too.”
South Avenue Football Club President Shahri Rahim saluted Yunus’s fighting spirit through his illness as he “fought a losing battle”. He says tearfully: “The way he kept battling was an inspiration. I used to go to the hospital at 2.00 or 3.00am when he called me for a listening ear or to buy his favourite food. He was an amazing footballer as he would do anything for the team when he was in good health. He will be massively missed.”
Yunus’s only son, Mohd Fathi, a former professional S-League footballer with Clementi Khalsa and now coaching football at the Little League Academy, says: “He will always be my role model. My father couldn’t have cared more for family and friends. Through his long cancer-illness he was so optimistic and he always had hope. It’s such a huge loss and it’s so sad that it’s ended this way.”
Yunus ranks among the “Kallang Roar” legends, who played at the height of the football-fanatic 1970s when the Lions were the rage of the region.
He rubbed shoulders alongside the late Dollah Kassim, Quah Kim Song, Samad Allapitchay, Arshad Khamis, M. Kumar, Eric Paine, Quah Kim Lye, Gulam Mohammad, Mohd Noh, Roy Krishnan and (the late) Lim Chiew Peng when 50,000 crowds thronged to the-then National Stadium at Kallang.
Even at club level, Yunus was one of the founder members of South Avenue (formerly known as Bakat Baru), one of the leading National Football League clubs in the 1970s, where he also coached after his playing career. He also had playing stints with Changi Constituency and Toa Payoh United in the 1970s.
“He was an outstanding striker, who led by example with his discipline on and off the field. He was a joy to watch, as he had good height and speed, and he gave his 100 per cent in every match,” says Shahri Rahim, former international goalkeeper and one of Yunus’s closest family friends.
Shahri says Yunus went for prolonged treatment with chemotherapy and radiation therapy for more than a year but family members say that at this advanced stage, they were just hoping for a miraculous recovery.
“He showed signs of strain, pain and weakness in the final few days,” recalls Shahri. “Family and friends were always motivating him and I brought Chinese food, like Hokkien mee and kway teow in the wee hours of the morning for him as he couldn’t take spicey food. He suddenly had that urge for Chinese food during his last few days.”
Former Singapore skipper Razali Saad, a Board Member at SportSingapore and FAS Council Member, quoted the words of (the late) Martin Luther King: “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope. Yunus will be resting in peace now, knowing he gave his best shot to minimise the trauma and pain on his closest family members.”
Yunus said in an interview in November last year when South Avenue organised a charity match in his honour: “Before all this I was coasting through life. Now I couldn’t be more thankful for every prayer, every dollar raised to help me and, more importantly, scores of family and friends who showed genuine support for me.”
His death is the third lately from cancer after ex-international defender Amin Nasir, who is the older brother of former national captain Nazri Nasir. He was first diagnosed with fourth-stage colon cancer in late 2012. The other was former international goalkeeper Lim Chiew Peng.
For Yunus Baba, Amin Nasir and Lim Chiew Peng, three distinguished former national stars, what matters now for family and friends will be the way they bravely showed their fighting football spirits as they battled cancer.
RIP Yunus Baba. He was laid to rest on Saturday after solat (five daily prayers) around mid-noon at Masjid Pusara Aman at Lim Chu Kang Road.
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has known Yunus Baba from his playing years in the 1970s. Yunus’s son, Mohd Fathi, also played in the S-League for Clementi Khalsa.