by: Brendon Egan
The Southland Times
Hockey enjoys a devout following in Malaysia and this week three men have been tasked with the job of relaying information back home to fanatical fans.
TV3 reporter Al Shaiful Nazib Talib, his cameraman Ahmad Khairi Osman, and journalist Satwant Singh, who writes for The Malay Mail newspaper and two other blogs, have been among the busiest men at the week-long World Cup qualifier tournament in Invercargill.
It's an important one for Malaysia, who would desperately love to feature at the World Cup for the first time since 2002. The Malaysian men's side have been in a steady state of decline since winning silver at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and desperately need to win this weekend's tournament to give the game a much needed lift back home.
"Hockey was popular in 1975, when we we hosted the World Cup," Singh said.
"Every kid wanted to play hockey. We had a revival at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. The failure to qualify for the Athens Olympics meant hockey took a turn for the worse."
Talib said there was plenty of interest in this week's qualifying tournament back in Malaysia with between 2 million and 5 million people following his hockey stories on the television news bulletin.
"The hope is so high. We want to qualify for the World Cup. Luckily, New Zealand helped us (on Thursday)," he laughed.
Hockey is the most popular sport in Malaysia behind football and badminton and Singh said a failure to qualify for the World Cup would leave Malaysians supporters heartbroken.
"There would be huge disappointment back home. Our target was to end up in the top 12 by this year. To be in the top 12 in the world, we have to play in the World Cup and we are not going to be in the World Cup."
The sport is well financed in Malaysia with players training fulltime and their every need catered for. Both Malaysians journalists believed that had to change in the future if they were to improve as a hockey nation.
"There was no such thing as fulltime training prior to 1998 ... In some countries, professionalism is not the way yet," Singh said.
He believed the national side could improve on their world ranking in the future with more players playing in the European and Australian leagues and experienced players staying on with the team rather than retiring once they hit 30 years of age.
Singh said a revamp of the whole Malaysian hockey system was also required.
"We can't keep doing the same things we've been doing the last 10 years. In order to take two steps forward, we have to take one step back ... and do away with fulltime training."
The Malaysian reporters were impressed with the Black Sticks at this week's tournament ands aid they had built a side that could realistically challenge for glory at the 2012 London Olympics and next year's World Cup – if they can qualify with a win tomorrow.