ASIA'S number one goalkeeper S. Kumar is now officially the new Spiderman of Malaysia.
The accolade was first given to soccer legend R. Arumugam who defended the soccer goalmouth in the 70s. Kumar rightfully earned the title on Monday when he defended with tenacity to help Malaysia keep their heads high in a thrilling 3-2 defeat to Australia in the Azlan Shah Cup.
World number 12 Malaysia had a fairytale match and Australia had to dig deep into their reserves with World Cup star Jamie Dwyer, brought out from retirement, using all his experience before finally beating Kumar with a penalty stroke and then a field goal.
The Spiderman, from Tampin Negri Sembilan, saved at least eight point blank shots and six penalty corner attempts to frustrate Australia. For the record, Australia retained the 2014 World Cup by hammering Olympic Silver medallists the Netherlands 6-1. Dwyer scored the sixth goal at the Haque final.
"The feeling is great as not only I, but the entire team played good hockey against Australia but at the same time Im also frustrated because we came close to stealing a point but lost out on experience to the world champions," said Kumar.
At the Hague, Australia were high up almost touching the stars, while Kumar and his mates finished rooted at the bottom.
Kumar took Malaysia into the World Cup when he defended his goalmouth from Japan strikers like a lion in the World League Semifinals penalty shoot-out in Johor Baru. And in January, he was there again to stop Japan in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals of the World League Round Two to take Malaysia into the WL Semi-finals in Belgium.
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With me, Belgium could be my last chance and Im not about to cave in without giving my very best," said Kumar, 35.
Last year Malaysia were hammered 8-3 by Australia in the final of the Azlan Shah Cup but Kumar did not play in the tournament as he had personal matters to attend to.
Juniors goalkeeper Hafizuddin Othman was the gatekeeper then, and Australia had a field beating the kid who made his Azlan Shah Cup debut.
Former national coach K. Dharmaraj who is now a National Sports Council development coach, is in Ipoh for the tournament and lamented on the lack of a capable replacement when Kumar retires.
"Kumar is among the best goalkeepers in the world right now, but sadly we do not have a capable replacement when he decides to call it a day. There are many juniors who aspire to become goalkeepers and some have been sent to the Netherlands right as we speak to make them on par or even better than Kumar. But it will take time and Im afraid there will be a big vacuum for years in the goalkeeping department and that could mean trouble for the national team. Goalkeeping is a special department that needs urgent attention because a country which is weak in that department can never break into the top five in the world," said Dharmaraj.
Malaysia play India today and another defeat could see the silver medallists fighting to avoid the last spot in Ipoh.
India coach Paul van Ass is confident his men will prevail: "India played well in both the matches but did not get the desired results as even though the my player have good skills, I still need to strenghten the tactical and mental side of the game and that's what we are here for. Malaysia are a very challenging side but I believe we have the advantage."
Asian Games champions India have already qualified for the Olympics, so they can afford to experiment with their new coach van Ass in Ipoh as well as the World League Semifinals in Belgium.
For Malaysia, the Azlan Shah Cup is the last avenue for top exposure before heading to Belgium in June for a shot at Olympic glory which the country last experienced in Sydney 2000.
P W D L F A Pts
AUSTRALIA 2 2 0 0 10 2 6
N ZEALAND 2 2 0 0 6 3 6
S KOREA 2 1 1 0 5 3 4
INDIA 2 1 1 0 3 4 1
MALAYSIA 2 0 0 2 4 7 0
CANADA 2 0 0 2 1 10 0
April 7: REST DAY.
April 8: Canada v New Zealand (4pm), South Korea v Australia (6pm), Malaysia v India (8pm).
April 9: India v Canada (4pm), New Zealand v Australia (6pm), Malaysia v South Korea (8pm).
April 10: REST DAY.
April 11: Australia v India (4pm), South Korea v New Zealand (6pm), Malaysia v Canada (8pm).