Monday, June 14, 2010

You Can Bet On It

Whatever your personal and partisan politics may be about the gambling controversy, I am reminded once again, as the World Cup is well underway, that whether you gamble on sports or not, we as a nation are once again reduced to being on the sidelines of a world sporting extravaganza. To be more precise, we’re again in the audience looking in on a major team sport on the world stage.

Sure, some of us are in favour of gambling on such occasions and some not. Either way, the glaringly obvious fact is that as a nation we continue to fail at getting on to the international stage in a major team sport.           

As a football fan, I’ve wondered why is it that we’ve failed so miserably at building a formidable football squad that has any international repute? Indeed, it’s obvious that the same also happens to be the case in hockey and several other team sports. Ever wonder why that is? Football and hockey, however, as two prominent team sports, stand out in particular. If we look into our early achievements in these team sports, we were actually reasonably good on the international stage.

If you pay any attention to what the old-timers say, they’re always quick to reminisce about the glory days of the country’s football team. Apparently, we were right there among the best in East Asia, and competitive among the elite football teams in Asia. Whenever we competed, we were often shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Japan and South Korea; teams that regularly participated in the Merdeka tournament.

As I understand it, we had some amazing players on the national football team back then. Names that we have come to know as legendary in the folklore of Malaysian football.  It seems as if by the early 1980s, as the Mahathir reign started to exert its grip on the country, football – and even other team sports became increasingly politicized. That was the beginning of the end. Ever since then, it’s been a steady downhill slide for these team sports in our country. Indeed, the peak of our hockey glory was of course the 1975 World Cup semi-final.

While other countries, including Japan and South Korea, have gone on to become Asian powers in football and are again playing in the World Cup, our days as a formidable force even in Southeast Asia is highly questionable and dubious. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that frankly, it’s painful to watch the team play.

Politics in these sports – especially in the appointment of key personnel and staff and especially in the selection of players  - quickly resembled the politics in wider society. Just as the presence of non-Malays in government positions and government universities became less visible, their representation on the playing field of these sports also strangely and miraculously withered away.

What a coincidence, that highly qualified non-Malays not only became squeezed out of entrance to universities, government scholarships and jobs, they were also less likely to be selected to the national teams of football and hockey starting around this time. And, as I said, the early 1980s was also the time that we started to slide downhill in these sports.    

Now just contrast the dismal state of our team sports such as football and hockey with the state of our competitors in individual sports, such as badminton and squash. Here, you see, individual ability, after all, cannot be disguised – as you can with selecting a hockey or football team. Who must we choose to represent us for the Thomas Cup? Surely it has to be the best individual players in the country. How do we know who is best? Well, surely the players who do best in the singles matches like the Malaysian Open or the doubles pair that do best in international tournaments are the best in our country. 

While our Umnoputeras could make sure that, like in the case of entrance to the university, we could still keep out the best and select the mediocre, can you imagine our national image in the international community if our best singles (and doubles) players who win in individual international competitions were not selected to represent Malaysia? 

Of course there are other individual sports, such as tennis or golf, which - it seems we don’t have such a long tradition of in this country and – we aren’t very prominent on the international stage. But where we do have individuals who represent the country, they happen to be the best individual players.

But that is not the case when it comes to team sports - thanks to Umno's not so subtle manipulation of politicising these popular team sports.

So the pattern is clear. Umnoputeras and Ketuanan Melayu ideology have not so coincidentally also destroyed national team sports. So after half a century of independence, we remain in the sidelines, for example, of the football World Cup even if as a nation we’ve always had a strong passion for the sport. On the other hand, even countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria – countries comparable to us in age, and South Korea and Japan, against whom we used to be competitive – are playing among the world’s best in South Africa.  

One thing you can bet on: these African countries playing in the World Cup did not select their teams based on racial politics, ideology or the heritage of the players.

G. Krishnan