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Farewell to a football mentor

Tributes flow for Singaporean who was Asia's first World Cup ref in 1974. -ST
Wang Meng Meng

Tue, Dec 11, 2012
The Straits Times

George Suppiah flashing a yellow card at a player during the 1974 World Cup match between Haiti and Poland in Munich. He is the first Asian to referee in the World Cup.

SINGAPORE - BY HIS own admission, former national football team striker Ho Kwang Hock was a hot-headed player who quarrelled with officials.

But not even once did he go in George Suppiah's little black book.

"He was easily the referee I respected the most," the 57-year-old Ho recalled.

"He was very fair and didn't flash red and yellow cards like today's referees. Even though I often argued with him, he would tell me to calm down. He was never rash in his decisions. Incredibly, he never booked me."

Suppiah, Singapore and Asia's first World Cup referee in the 1974 finals in the then West Germany, died at 12.45am on Friday at Tan Tock Seng Hospital after a long battle with diabetes. He was 83.

Vallambal, his wife of 55 years, son Subra and daughter Shamini were with him in his final moments.

"He was the perfect dad," Shamini, 45, told The Straits Times, her voice choking with emotion. "He was a soft-spoken family man who was always calm and dignified."

After Suppiah put the little red dot on the world football map, it took 32 years before another Singaporean, Shamsul Maidin, officiated on football's grandest stage.

Shamsul, 45, was an arbiter in the 2006 edition, coincidentally also in Germany.

The other Singaporeans who have officiated at the World Cup are assistant referees K. Viswanathan (2002 in South Korea/Japan) and Jeffrey Goh (2010 in South Africa).

Shamini recalled that her father, whom she estimated to stand at less than 1.6m, had to cope not just with the big-name players at the World Cup, but also the stars who were much taller.

She said: "As the first Asian to officiate at the World Cup, he had to work extra hard to prove his calibre. He was probably the tiniest referee there but he exerted his authority on the game through his confidence and dignity."

An educator by profession, Suppiah taught English and mathematics at Gan Eng Seng Primary and was the vice-principal of Tanglin Primary. He retired at the age of 65 as Anglo-Chinese Junior College's head of physical education.

He was also a hockey and tennis coach and actively swam and played lawn bowls and cricket.

As a Fifa referee from 1967 to 1978, Suppiah officiated in 43 "A" international matches. He was also a Fifa instructor for 22 years.

His football career started at Farrer Park, where he played as a striker for National Football League side Jollilads.

At the 1974 World Cup, he supervised the first-round match between Poland and Haiti, and ran the lines for the Sweden-Bulgaria match and the second-round group match between the Netherlands and Brazil.

He and Lee Kok Leong are the only Singaporeans to be awarded the Fifa Referee Special Award.

Lee, 73, a Fifa referee from 1966 to 1989, said: "When I became a referee in 1958, he was the one who taught me. He never lashed out at referees for making mistakes.

"Instead, he would have a private word with us. His character was so refined and I'm always grateful to him for setting me on my path as a referee."

Suppiah's hearse passed through Farrer Park, the place where he cut his refereeing teeth, before the cremation at 6.30pm on Saturday at Mount Vernon.

His treasured shirt from 1974 will take pride of place at the family home on Dorset Road. And, fittingly, he will be cremated in his other favourite outfit - his Fifa referees' instructor shirt.

meng@sph.com.sg


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