The Malaysians are bidding to qualify for their first Olympics since Sydney 2000 where they finished 11th out of 12 teams in the fray.
But despite the long-term plans put in place since the World Cup last year, the preparations have not been ideal for the team.
And to add to the woes, Malaysia lost No. 1 goalkeeper S. Kumar after his three-year-old son passed away on Thursday. Kumar’s absence could be a telling factor.
He has been replaced in the team by up-and-coming youngster Mohamed Haifizuddin Othman.
Malaysia coach Tai Beng Hai is understandably apprehensive about Malaysia’s chances.
“But we have to go on and put up a fight. Nothing has been lost yet. The players are aware of the mammoth task that awaits them. No match is easy with or without Kumar,” said Beng Hai.
“It is a tough draw, but the challenge now is for us to defy the odds and qualify for the Olympics. I hope the team will finish in a good position in the group to qualify for the knockout stage comfortably,” he added.
Malaysia are in Group B with hosts Belgium, Britain, Ireland and China. World champions Australia, India, Pakistan, Poland and France are in Group A.
The top three teams automatically qualify for next year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
World No. 12 Malaysia kick off their campaign against No. 31 China on Sunday and No. 14 Ireland on June 25. These two matches are without doubt the most important and Malaysia need to collect full points.
Once that is done, Malaysia should be well on the way to the quarter-finals. Then, Malaysia need to try and collect as many points as possible from No. 4 Belgium and No. 5 Britain to finish among the top two in the group.
The quarter-finals on July 1 will then decide Malaysia’s fate. If they win and make the semi-finals, then they are on their way to Rio.
It is a simple process.
The Malaysians, no doubt, have a very experienced line-up to realise the Olympic dream.
There are 11 players who have made more than 100 international appearances, including three who have surpassed the 200-cap barrier. They are Mohd Shahrun Nabil Abdullah (224), Mohd Sukri Mutalib (217) and Azlan Misron, who is rapidly approaching 350 caps.
But all eyes will be on Faizal Saari. The controversial forward is a skilful player. If he plays to his true potential, he has the ability to be a match winner. He is also a potent penalty corner flicker along with skipper Mohamed Razie Rahim.
In Kumar’s absence, Beng Hai will rely on 37-year-old Roslan Jamaluddin, a holder of 192 caps, to keep the opponents from scoring.