NATIONAL five-a-side blind football coach Sunny Shalesh reckons his players can pull off another successful campaign by the end of this week at the Asean Para Games, starting with their first match against Thailand today.
Currently 17th in the world, the Harimau Buta (Blind Tigers) is ranked the highest among the four countries: Thailand (19), Vietnam (32) and newly formed Laos (39).
The team, carrying momentum from an international friendly stint in China in July, has come a long way since stunning 2014 Asean champions Thailand in 2015, while it was still considered a recreational club.
The team last played Thailand and Vietnam in 2015. Laos, whom the team members met and defeated at the Tri-Nations tournament in India last December, is also expected to be a threat.
“As defending champions, we are expecting nothing less than a gold medal. But I have told the boys to stay grounded and not be overconfident,” said Sunny, after a training session at the UPM Sports Centre in Serdang.
“Laos is an exceptionally good team and the others have definitely improved as well. But our players have worked equally hard, even as much as able-bodied athletes do, and they are definitely feeling as though nothing can stop them.
Sunny added that the team members approached the final week of training at a more relaxed pace, instead of their usual regime of training for four to five hours daily.
“We have been aiming to put them into a good frame of mind by tapering off the intensity and giving them space to recover. So far, they have been cheerful and are looking forward to playing Thailand.
“Earlier this year, we also faced challenges of having a permanent training ground, moving three times in the past nine months. That was not an excuse for the boys and I have to thank Majlis Sukan Negara (MSN) for giving us a place to train on their turf,” he said.
Spending a few days off, enjoying themselves at a water theme park and putting on performances for children at Kidzania have helped to take the pressure off before the games, ensuring peak performance when it matters most.
Sunny added: “In 2015, we employed a more defensive tactic, but after our friendlies in China last July, our game has evolved into the offensive.
“We are being more creative in our attacks and switching play as we want to open up the game.
“We are getting everyone to work equally hard and we are quite lucky as all four players are able to adapt to the situation. We don’t park the bus, everybody is an attacker and defender.”
Sunny calls his players “superhuman’, because of their fighting spirit and what they have achieved despite being disabled.
“They are unique, and we want people to see and appreciate how they manage to play the game without sight. The thing is, even when they are in pain, they never give up,” he said.
Goalkeeper Meor Shahrul Azha Mat Salleh, 34, is playing with two fractured fingers and a torn ligament. Ahmad Bustamam Mohd Ali, 41, also a goalkeeper, has been playing with a swollen ankle for months.
“Both of them could have opted to rest but they decided to be with the team after getting the green light from the doctors,” said Sunny, adding that all minor injuries were under control, thanks to the care given by the National Sports Institute (ISN).
Sunny added that a number of players even went as far as to take year-long sabbaticals from their studies and work to play in the team.
The Malaysian heroes will face Vietnam tomorrow and Laos on Wednesday in the round-robin format.
The matches will be held at the National Hockey Stadium (B) at the KL Sports City in Bukit Jalil.
Malaysian five-a-side blind football squad
Mohamad Amirul Arif Mahadhir
Muhamad Azuan Abdul Rasiad
Azril Che Ibrahim
Mohd Zamha Abdul Wahab
Ahmad Fikri Omar
Mohamad Asri Arshad
Sulaiman Noz Azizan
Ahmad Bustamam Mohd Ali
Meor Shahrul Azha Mat Salleh
Muhammad Azri Azman
Muhammad Hafiz Othman