Monday, February 28, 2011

It all boils down to players

By Vijesh Rai

INCENTIVES have been announced, targets set and team officials finalised as the Malaysian Hockey Federation (MHF) eyes the 2012 London Olympics and the urgency is understandable for failure to qualify is not an option, not after having missed the last two Olympics.
Sydney 2000 was Malaysia's last appearance at the Olympics and MHF knows that not joining the world's best in London could well spell the end for the game in the country.
The players -- the main characters in the plot -- must understand this and vow to work hard and cut no corners for if they fail, they will go down in history as part of the reason why Malaysian hockey went from appearing at the highest of stages to disappearing completely.
This doesn't have to happen though for in winning silver at last year's Guangzhou Asian Games, the players proved that there is still hope for the sport but the challenge now is to translate this into brilliance.
It would have been a much easier task had MHF succeeded in securing the hosting of a Qualifier but it wasn't meant to be and the task now is to give undivided attention to sealing a place in London.
Malaysia are still in the dark as to which Qualifier they will play in -- Japan and India will host one each next year while the third has yet to be decided -- but that shouldn't be of concern for none will be easy.
MHF has done well in making early key decisions but that isn't enough for the players need to be pushed and playing in invitational tournaments and friendly matches alone won't be enough.
Sending the players abroad for playing stints with European clubs will help but what will really go a long way in making the task a little bit easier is for them to realise just how crucial it is for Malaysia to qualify for the Olympics.
Hockey is among the luckier sports for it isn't among those who have seen their funding from the National Sports Council reduced but this isn't necessarily a situation MHF will be in forever.
Other sports, including the hugely successful bowling, are having to cope with cuts and if hockey doesn't qualify for the Olympics, it will become increasingly hard for NSC to justify spending huge amounts on it.
More is set to be spent over the next year or so in the build-up to the Olympic Qualifier but the players have to account for the millions of Ringgit that have been budgeted for training, exposure and allowances for the Malaysian taxpayers expect returns on their investment.
MHF president Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah is leading by example and the fact that he has pledged to also contribute to the incentives announced is proof that he is committed to the MHF cause.
Though there is still room for improvement in the MHF set-up, Tengku Abdullah has done well since assuming the presidency, which has also silenced his doubters who felt that his passion for football would be at the expense of hockey.
Tengku Abdullah has played a key role in trying to bring hockey back to the masses -- the 1Mas Project and the MHL being shown live on Astro being part of the plan to make the sport boom again.
It won't be easy though and the near empty stadiums in which the MHL matches have been played in are proof of that as fans will only return in droves if the national team are successful.
The footballers have shown that this is exactly the case and the Olympic side's qualifier against Pakistan drew a reasonable turnout only because fans have started to believe again after the Laos Sea Games and AFF Cup triumphs.
For their efforts, the footballers have been well rewarded, there is renewed interest in the game and more money has been pledged to ensure the FA of Malaysia continues to progress.
Tengku Abdullah is trying to do the same with MHF but all the good work and pledge of incentives will mean nothing if the national hockey team are not in London come August 2012.
What will be worse is if this results in even more declining interest in the sport.
Only the players can prevent this.