James Wong’s 85th minute winner against South Korea almost 40 years ago in the Olympics qualifier is an image that would be hard to erase from the memories any Malaysian.
The Malaysian hockey teams exploits at the 1975 World Cup when a goal from Sri Shamuganathan two minute from time helped Malaysia qualify for the semi-finals for the first time cannot be forgotten easily either.
Team sport evokes something special for most people, immaterial whether they are sports fan or not. When the Philippines chose We Win As One as their theme, it was also an indication that the shared values, beliefs, expectations, practices and success as a group, in this case as nation, outweighs individuality.
Malaysia’s failure to reach the target of 70 gold medals at the recent SEA Games is being panned by critics, but many have also failed to see how we have failed to deliver in team sports. Of the 15 team sports competed in Manila, we had managed to win only in three sports – indoor hockey, netball and polo. All three are usual medal contributors for Malaysia at the regional level.
With the exception of men’s football, where all 11 nations participated, most of the other team events attracted just half of the participating countries.
All it would have taken was to beat a maximum of two other nations and a medal was guaranteed. In women’s water polo, with only three teams participating, no bronze medals were awarded. Malaysia finished third in the event.
Malaysia did not field teams in baseball, beach handball and volleyball. Of the three, that Malaysia were not good enough to field a volleyball team is a major warning sign for the sport in Malaysia.
Football’s disastrous outing at the Games, does not augur well for probably the richest sports in Malaysia. Millions have been pumped into the sport every year, not inclusive of the millions the government has spent on the National Football Development Plan (NFDP in recent years. This year the grant from the government is a whopping RM45 million.
Football still seems to the sports that the entire region is mad about, just behind basketball that saw the participation of eight nations in the men’s competition. Like football, Malaysia also failed to shine in the basketball competition.
But the bigger problem is not about just football and basketball. Does Malaysia have a future in team sports?
A key reason why many countries, including Malaysia, do not put much emphasis on team sports is the economics. A swimmer can go to the SEA Games and be competitive in many events, but in team sports you end up bringing a group of players to fight for a single medal.
Most team sports in Malaysia do not have the same sort of glamour as football or to some extent hockey. They struggle to get the financial backing to prepare their teams or even send their teams for competitions.
Take the case of the Malaysian dodgeball team that had to resort to crowd funding recently to participate at the world championships in Mexico despite being the world champions.
Unlike individual sports, success or failure in team competition also depends on many variables. With few exceptions, it doesn’t matter whether your team has the best player, the final result depends on the entire team.
The effort and cost of preparing players for a team sports is also much higher and more tedious as compared to individual sports.
Financially it also does not make sense for the multi-sports administrators to consider inclusion of team events. That is the reason why in Manila so many new individual sports were included including arnis, sambo, kurash, kick boxing, jiu jitsu, wrestling and obstacle race.
With the number of teams being fielded by the member nations also does not help matters either.
The value creation of team sports cannot be explained or set aside by financial resources and considerations alone.
Are we so hell bent on chasing after quantity that we are beginning to neglect the importance of team sports.
Team sport helps to develop many qualities such as teamwork, team spirit, and leadership qualities which are extremely beneficial in every prospect of life.
Team sports fans not only enjoy the entertainment of two teams going head-to-head but they can also be influenced by these qualities, which cause positive influence in everyone’s life.
Team sports is like a religion to many, in Brazil it is football, in India it is cricket and in New Zealand it is rugby.
Malaysians are ardent followers of team sports, especially in football. Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Juventus all have either official supporters clubs in Malaysia or have more fans than many of the local sports teams.
How well Malaysian team performs, in sports like basketball, volleyball, softball or handball, seems to be a concern for Malaysians only when multi-sports event come around.
Team sports in Malaysia, apart from football and hockey, also needs better support from the sporting authorities.
While we savor the individual brilliance of the likes of Lee Chong Wei and Nicol David, we also long for the slick teamwork.
How can we forget the teamwork and uncanny understanding between Hassan Sani and James Wong in bringing down the Koreans?