KUALA LUMPUR: After months of acrimony and uncertainty, the national hockey team now has a new determination and spirit. And national coach Paul Lissek is a happy man these days.
The players who, after the “coach-changing saga' last month, promised to shape up are keeping their word and this augurs well for the Olympic qualifiers in Madrid next year.
When Lissek asked to be taken off the national team last month after the Asia Cup, his major complaint had been the indifferent attitude of the players in attending training.
But the players had wanted him to stay and a number of senior players even threatened to quit if the German went. Lissek returned and things are looking up now.
First, there was a good showing in the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad where they held eventual champions India to a 1-1 draw before losing on penalties and then succumbed 2-1 to South Korea in the playoffs. And when the team started training on Thursday three days after returning from India, the changes were obvious.
All the players were accounted for and 24 of them had checked into camp. P. Prabhakaran was the only absentee. He had just undergone a nose surgery and is expected to be out of action for three weeks.
The German admitted that he had expected a few absentees.
“I have to say that the full turnout players surprised me. This is good as it shows that the players are serious in what they said.
“I can also sense a new determination and the training sessions the last two days have been smooth with hardly a complaint.
“I hope the players maintain this as we head towards the qualifiers in March,'' he said yesterday.
Although the question of why there had been so much trouble in the team earlier remains, Lissek prefers to look to the future.
“I think we are all aware of the problems in the team and the important thing now is that the players want to work hard for the task ahead. They have trained in earnest over the last two days and it has made our (the coaches) job a whole lot easier.
“Hopefully, we will be in good form when we get to Madrid,'' he added.
For the qualifiers in March, Malaysia are in Group B along with India, Pakistan, New Zealand, Belgium and Canada. The other group has Holland, the Olympic defending champions, Spain, Britain, Poland, South Africa and Japan.
Malaysia's preparations over the next four months will centre on getting as fit as the big teams and getting as much match practice as possible.
“We can work on the fitness here in the National Sports Institute.
“But for the matches, we are hoping that teams will want to come here or at least invite us for matches against them.”
The main assignment for the team before the qualifiers is the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup from Jan 8-18 where they will play teams like Australia, Spain, Germany, India, Pakistan and South Korea.
The team will be training at night during the fasting period and then go back to their twice-daily training after the Raya break. In early December, the team will again go to Johor Baru for two weeks of centralised training before leaving for Lahore to play two matches with Pakistan.
After that, they leave for Spain for two Test matches and several matches against the clubs sides.
“The Spain trip is important as we will play them at the venue of the qualifiers,” said Lissek.