Sepak takraw was dominated by Malaysians and Thais, but we seem to have fallen behind.
STEPHAN Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, which was released in 2001, was a blockbuster hit. Reason? Audiences were captivated with the mixture of shaolin and football in the movie.
However, there is one sport that is able to replicate such moves and it has been played in Southeast Asia for many years.
In Malaysia, you can see youngsters playing this sport in residential areas and impressing people with their array of skills.
Sepak Takraw (also known as kick volleyball) is a sport that is unique to this region. Sepak takraw differs from volleyball as players use a rattan ball and are only allowed to use their feet, knee, chest and head to touch the ball.
People in Southeast Asia call sepak takraw in various ways. In Malaysia, the game is called sepak raga or “takraw”. In Laos it’s called thuck thay while in Thailand it is called takraw. In Myanmar it is known as chin lone. In the Philippines, besides “takraw” it is also known as sipa, which means kick
How was the name Sepak Takraw created?
“Sepak” is the Malay word for kick and “takraw” is the Thai word for a woven ball, therefore sepak takraw to kick ball. The name was given for the sport after an agreement between Malaysia and Thailand, the two major forces of the sport.
Earliest historical evidence shows that the game was played in the 15th century’s Malacca Sultanate. The Malay Annals described in the incident of Raja Muhammad, son of Sultan Mansur Shah who was accidentally hit with a rattan ball by Tun Besar, son of Tun Perak, in a sepak raga game.
In Bangkok, murals at Wat Phra Kaeo, which was built in 1785, depict the Hindu god Hanuman playing sepak takraw in a ring with a troop of monkeys.
At first, the game remained in its circle form and the players played keepie-uppies unlike the format now that is almost similar with Volleyball.
The modern version of sepak takraw is competitive and took shape in Thailand almost 200 years ago.
In 1829, the Siam Sports Association created the first rules for the game. Four years later, the association introduced the volleyball-style net and held the first public contest.
By the 1940s, the net version of the game had spread throughout Southeast Asia, and formal rules were introduced. This sport became officially known as ‘sepak takraw’.
International tournaments are now governed by ISTAF, the International Sepak Takraw Federation. The King’s Cup World Championships is held every year in Thailand and it is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the Sepak Takraw circuit.
Sepak takraw has also become a regular event in the Asian Games and the Southeast Asian Games.
In Malaysia, Thailand’s chief takraw rival, sepak takraw is a national game. The country also has a takraw history rich with characters and milestone events.
Hamid Maidin, Malaysia’s “Father of Modern Takraw”, is credited with introducing the volleyball-style net and rules in Malaysia during World War Two, about the same time as similar developments in Thailand.
The Malaysian team
In the 70s, we used to be a force to be reckoned with only Malaysia and Thailand dominating the sepak takraw circuit whereas the other Southeast Asia nations were crushed by these two nations.
Sepak takraw made its debut in the SEA Games in 1967 and no one else could get near.
In the 80s, Malaysia exerted their dominance and Thailand was dethroned in the King’s Cup by Malaysia twice (1986 and 1988). They bagged the SEA Games golds quite often during that era and it proved to be successful decade for the Malaysians.
In the 1990 Asian Games, Malaysia was the first team to win the Gold medal and won the gold medal in 1994 Hiroshima games.
After its success in 1990, ISTAF was pushing hard to add it to the Summer Olympic roster for. They were even willing to change the sport’s ancient name to “Acro-volley.” But to no avail.
After losing out on the Gold medals in the first two Asian games, Thailand improved their squad and the likes of Suebsak and Tawit Wongkluen, who were the stars for Thailand at that time proved to be a thorn for the Malaysian team.
During that time players like Azlan Mubin, Rommi Suhendra and Zabidi Shariff were the key players and were known for their intense matches with the Thais.
By the start of the new millennium, more teams were in the fray and teams like Indonesia, Myanmmar and Vietnam were beginning to challenge the two powerhorses.
However, Malaysia’s performances dipped and Thailand were beginning to stamp themselves as the indomitable force of sepak takraw.
Nowadays, we are losing tamely against Thailand and even against other nations like Myanmmar, South Korea and Indonesia. What has happened to the sport we once dominated?
Mohsen Amdan, founder of Bolarotan.com said that the national players now are young and lack experience.
When asked whether Malaysia has what it takes to win the SEA Games medal this year, this is what he had to say,
“I think it’s still too far for them to achieve that. Our players in the national set-up are young and they lack experience, technique and skill.”
“We will have a tough time facing teams like Thailand and based on form, Thailand is the favourites for the gold medal,” said Mohsen
Some allege that Persatuan sepak takraw Malaysia (PSM), the main sepak takraw body in Malaysia has not managed to groom a new generation of talent for a while.
We produced top-notch players in the 80s and 90s, but the current situation has been lamented by many enthusiasts.
“The associations have not done enough to promote the sport. They keep saying that other parties are hindering their management and not being able to do their duty well,” said Mohsen.
Realising the problem, Mohsen and few enthusiast opened up Bola Rotan to promote the sport via social media means.
This year, they are planning to make it big by organising various programs and they have just got the kick-start they needed.
“Our program is endorsed by the Ministry of Sports and kicks off this March. Bolarotan.com is the biggest effort so far in promoting the sport in Malaysia,”
Abdul Halim Mualif stated that promoting the sport is critical. Youth development for the sport has also reduced and he said that PSM needs to take steps to make sure that Malaysia has a larger talent pool.
“PSM should promote and widen their talent pool. Youth development is essential. I think they can do better,” said Halim
Shahrulmiza Zakaria also had interesting viewpoints about the sport.
“Have they (PSM) done enough - there’s no specific parameters on “enough” in terms of promotion. We have to promote the sport continuously. Even England’s Premier League, the most popular football league in the world are doing their promotional activities,” said Shahrulmiza
When asked about the prospect of a SEA games gold medal in Myanmmar he said we have to be realistic when setting targets.
“We have the chance to grab the gold medal – provided we send the strongest team and a great coach that can apply the best tactical strategies when facing our rivals,”
The future scenario
According to Mohsen, the future looks brighter for Malaysia’s sepak takraw though the team has been in the doldrums for the past few years.
“We have young talented players from all over Malaysia. The right programs will surely help the development of youths,”
For Halim, his only hope for the future is to see Malaysia dethrone Thailand and become the new powerhouses of Sepak Takraw.
“They have been dominating the scene for too long and it’s about time we see our lads dominating the scene in the near future,”
Optimism is the key when it comes to the future of the sport. Being negative will not help according to Shahrulmiza.
“We have a bright future. We have many youngsters who play the sport. However, we must have a management that plans well and groom these talents into great players,” he said.
Our sepak takraw team will have 11 months to prepare for the SEA games and the nation will be hoping for our boys to cause an upset and win the gold medal.
The fans are hoping for the best for the team and in the near future, we are hoping to see more youngsters emulate the likes of legends Zabidi Shariff, Baharum Johar and Raziman Hassan.
An enhanced version of this story is available on the tablet app The Star's Editor Choice Jan 25th edition.