KUALA LUMPUR: The national team left last night for the Junior World Cup Finals in Rotterdam carrying with them Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's hopes of seeing the country bask again in hockey glory.
But it will be an uphill task for Malaysia, whose best results in the series were two fourth-place finishes – in Paris in 1979 and in Kuala Lumpur in 1982.
In fact, making it into the second round will be achievement enough. That, indeed, is the target for the team who are ranked 15th in the 16-team Finals.
Whether they achieve it or not could well be determined in their very first match in Group B – against 10th ranked South Africa on the opening day's action of the Finals on Wednesday.
Victory will virtually seal their place in the second round from a group which also has second-ranked Germany and Argentina, who were the runners-up at the last Finals in Hobart four years ago and are now ranked seventh in the world.
The top three teams in each of the four-group preliminary rounds advance to the second round. The last-placed teams go into playoffs for positions 13th-16th.
At the last Finals, Malaysia set themselves the target of getting among the top eight. But an opening match defeat by New Zealand shattered their confidence and they went on to finish 12th. Then, the preliminary rounds were played in two groups of six teams each.
Coach Sarjit Singh said yesterday that the opening match against South Africa would be a very crucial one.
“We can safely say that we will go through to the second round if we beat them. It will also boost the team’s confidence for the matches ahead,” said Sarjit.
“Although South Africa are ranked higher than us, we have a team capable of beating more fancied sides. We proved it in the six-nation invitational tournament in March.”
Then, Malaysia defeated India 1-0 and South Korea 2-1. In the final, Malaysia held Pakistan to a goalless draw and were beaten 2-4 on penalties.
India will be defending the world junior title in Rotterdam as the number four ranked team while Pakistan and South Korea go into the fray as the sixth and ninth ranked sides respectively.
Spain are the top ranked team in the Finals and they are in Group A with South Korea, England and Mexico. In Group C are Australia, Pakistan, Belgium and Chile while Group D has Holland, India, Poland and Egypt.
“My players have been together for almost a year now. They are in high spirits and I am confident that they will be able to get the better of South Africa,” said Sarjit.
“We have not played against them in recent years but we have seen then on video in action in a four-nation tournament in Karachi in February. They have a bigger physique and play a robust game.”
Team manager Ariffin Ghani said that if they got through to the second round, their target would be amended to a top eight finish.
“We are also happy to receive a letter of support from the Prime Minister on Tuesday,” he said.
“The special interest taken by the Prime Minister in the team has further inspired the players for their challenges in Rotterdam. We have given every player a copy of the letter.”