By James Gough
The recently-concluded Sultan Azlan Shah Cup (SASC) International Hockey Tournament, the 22nd in the series, was considered the best ever edition of the annual game. This was proudly declared by tournament organiser, Dato’ Hj Abdul Rahim Md Ariff. Due to its significance, this international hockey tournament, the longest running invitational tournament in the world has been featured in the International Hockey Federation’s (IHF) annual calendar of events putting Ipoh on the world Hockey map.
“The organisation is world class in all aspects” – Gary Marsh, IHF Tournament Director
The invitational, the brainchild of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, was intended to provide the home team an opportunity to play with world-class hockey teams following the country’s fall from grace in the early 1980s. The tournament, limited to 7 top-ranked teams in the world, made its debut in 1983.
This year’s tournament was held from March 9 till 17. Six teams, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and Malaysia were in Ipoh to wrest the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.
Without doubt the Malaysian team this year played a more spirited game compared to previous years. But that was not the reason for Rahim’s happiness. His joy was to witness and hear the infectious cheers of the crowd who filled the Azlan Shah Hockey Stadium to support the national team. The scenario was repeated for the whole duration of the tournament, especially when Malaysia was on the field.
The invitational is normally held during the mid-year school holidays to enable students and families to watch the matches. No entrance fee is levied and the attendance has been fairly good, increasing as the event progresses. The crowd is a mixed bag of locals and foreigners. The majority of the locals are from within Perak with a sprinkling of outsiders. However, foreign fans are made up of team officials and their “Imported” supporters.
Since the Asia Cup will be held in Ipoh in August, the SASC was pushed forward to March. The week-long tournament was held at Stadium Azlan Shah, Ipoh with a seating capacity of 12,000. The home team’s sterling performance was the reason why the stadium was packed every other evening. They were the main draw.
Malaysia, ranked 13th, won their opening match against South Korea, ranked 8th with a slim 3-2 margin. The home team normally wins or draws in the preliminary rounds only to lose when the going gets tough. This raises the ire of fans who would then tag the team as “Jagoh Kampong” (village champion) the moment they begin to fumble. However, this was not the case this time around. They came out on top once again in their second game against New Zealand (ranked 6th) beating the Kiwis 2-1. The crowd on the second day was much larger considering it was a Sunday night.
On the third day when Malaysia faced World No. 2, Australia, the stadium was filled to the brim. The fans were out in force to provide the much needed support considering that Australia had earlier beaten India 4-3 and steamrolled Pakistan 6-0.
Our Malaysian boys played their hearts out. Their determination saw them holding the mighty Aussies to a 1-1 draw. The equalising goal was scored by a Malaysian forward 44 seconds before the air horn was sounded. Immediately, vuvuzelas blared and drums pounded throughout the stadium. The atmosphere was ecstatic.
Malaysia’s next two games ended in a draw, 2-2 with Pakistan a similar 2-2 with India. The two draws paved the way to a much anticipated final with Australia, the other finalist.
The stadium was packed to overflowing. To accommodate those who could not get in, a huge LED screen was erected in the car park where, according to Rahim, close to 2000 had gathered to watch the game.
The VIPs present during the final included members of the Royal family. HRH Sultan Azlan Shah who was indisposed, did not attend the tournament like previous years. But it was reported that he had followed every match on TV along with his grandchildren.
The Royal entourage was well represented that night. They included HRH Raja Muda Perak Raja Nazrin Shah, Raja Puan Besar Perak Tuanku Zara Salim, daughter YTM Raja Eleena and the wife of the late Raja Ashman Shah YTM Dato’ Seri Noraini Jane. Menteri Besar Dato Seri DiRaja Dr Zambry Abd Kadir was there too.
When Malaysia opened account in the 4th minute through Faizal Saari, the entire stadium erupted. Unfortunately, Australia equalised in the 29th minute and took the lead a minute later.
Malaysia drew level in the 49th minute. But with barely 4 seconds left before the final whistle, Australia scored to claim the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup with a 3-2 win over Malaysia.
The final match, as with all the earlier games, was fast and exciting. The Malaysian team this year played with a new found vitality. They took the challenge seriously and fans were on the edge for the entire 70 minutes of each match. This was unlike before as the tempo would taper off with time.
Perhaps the team’s new found strength and spirit are attributable to Malaysia’s new hockey coach, South African Paul Michael Revington. Or perhaps it was due to the foreign teams fielding their junior players while Malaysia fielded a mixed bag of junior and senior players throughout the tournament.
Whatever the reasons were, the enthusiasm displayed on the blue turf had a tremendous impact on fans’ turnout and TV viewers. Astro, the official broadcaster for the tournament, recorded a viewers’ average of 340,000 each time Malaysia took to the field. This figure is normally seen during finals of the European football leagues.
The coaches and umpires courses were held simultaneously during the tournament. The courses, held at the Raja Ashman Shah AHF-MHC Academy adjacent to the stadium, saw an enrolment of 36 from 11 Asian countries.
This year the academy focused on the AHF (Asian Hockey Federation) Level 2 Coaching Course and AHF Umpiring Course. The courses were held during the tournament, as the games were recorded and used for study and observation. The academy, which is acknowledged by AHF as a centre for Asian hockey, was started in 2011. Its objective is to train and prepare coaches, umpires and technical officials to manage competitions in the participants’ countries.
Mr Gary Marsh, the Tournament Director appointed by the International Hockey Federation (IHF) to oversee this year’s competition described the organisation as superb. “It’s world class, in all aspects,” he exclaimed. “The competitive team spirit shown by all the participating teams was excellent despite this being an invitational tournament,” he told Ipoh Echo.
Marsh further described the entire Ipoh set up, namely the tournament’s facilities, the academy and the courses offered as fantastic and being essential for the development of the sport in the country. What further impressed Marsh was the fanatical home fans. “They came with their entire families and this added to the atmosphere of the game. It was friendly and I loved every minute of it.”
In August (August 24 to September 1) Ipoh will play host to another international-class hockey tournament, the 9th Men’s Asia Cup.
Eight teams, including Malaysia, will be participating. The event will be treated as a World Cup qualifying tournament. All participating nations will be fielding their first team and Malaysia can expect a gruelling fight to the finish.
According to Rahim, the IHF has recently expanded the World Cup Tournament to accommodate 16 teams instead of 12 previously. With this expansion it is hoped that Malaysia will make the cut.
When asked whether the home team was preparing for the World Cup, Coach Paul Revington’s reply was crisp. “My most important assignment is to help Malaysia win the Asia Cup so we can qualify for the 2014 World Cup in the Hague next year.”
Alluding to the final against Australia, Revington was truly amazed by the team’s fighting spirit. “If we remain consistent and embrace the challenge, we’ll forge ahead. Hopefully, this is a harbinger of good things to come. And once we start running, we’ll be unstoppable,” he remarked.
Due to the fixtures of the World Cup in May 2014, the 23rd edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah International Hockey Tournament next year is tentatively slated in the March-April timeframe.
Fans can expect a very exciting outing because the teams participating would have qualified for the World Cup. They would use the tournament as a testing ground for their teams.
It appears that only after 22 tournaments that Ipoh’s home-grown product is finally getting the recognition it is due. Considering that it is a permanent feature in Ipoh’s calendar of events, perhaps we should try to package the tournament for sports buffs, both local and foreign.
Towards this end, the efforts of Ipoh City Council, Tourism Perak and that of the Perak Hockey Association should be galvanised for the benefit of all. Haji Musa Dun, CEO of Tourism Perak, is receptive of the idea and has given his stamp of approval.