There was clamour outside Terminal 2 of the Chennai International Airport on Saturday morning with the impending arrival of the Malaysian hockey team, the first to come ahead of next month’s Asian Champions Trophy in the city.
Media people crowded the gate with local folk dancers hired to welcome the tourists.
For Head coach Arul Anthoni Selvaraj, one of the first among the visiting Malaysian contingent to make his way out of the airport would have felt like homecoming.
Arul, who has his roots in Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam, is beaming with pride to be back in Chennai after 26 years.
“Romba magizhchi ah iruku [I am so happy]. I am very proud to be a Tamilian and be here as the coach of my team in the land where my father was born,” says Arul, smiling from ear to ear.
Arul is standing next to his captain Marhan Jalil, but everyone wants to get a sound byte from the Tamil-speaking towering Malaysian.
He was last here as a player for the national team in 1997 for the Chief Minister’s Cup and receiving prizes from the former Chief Minister K. Karunanidhi and Hotel Abu Palace are his abiding memories from that trip.
“Is it still there or not?” he asks with a chuckle and is affirmed in the positive.
“I would love to go back and see. I remember, we were having dinner and we met an Indian actor. A villain actor, who is very famous. I can’t get the name. He acted with Rajnikanth and is still acting now. He is always the villain,” he recollects without being able to arrive at the name.
His family from Kumbakonam has been calling him to let him know when he would be visiting them since they found out about his tournament itinerary.
Kumbakonam takes him back to his days when he would wake up late in the day, have the famous filter coffee and go on his strolls as he pleases. But Arul is not here on his holidays.
The Champions Trophy is the pre-cursor for the top Asian teams in its bid for the Asian Games gold in October and automatically earn a Paris Olympic berth, bidding for the Speedy Tigers’ first qualification since 2000.
Malaysia, which has never won the Champions Trophy, has a rigorous 10-day schedule coming up against the host India, China, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea. “We have seven games in 10 days which is demanding so we need to manage the recovery process. We have a full and strong medical team,” Arul says.
Arul is pleased with the progress his team has made since he took over from Roelant Oltmans in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. He has had experience as an assistant coach with the national teams of South Africa, Ireland and Malaysia but never as a head coach before he was put in the hot seat.
The 52-year-old has learnt from the best minds in Paul Lissek (Olympic gold-winning coach with Germany), Maurits Hendriks (Olympic gold-winning coach with Spain and current Chief Sports Officer at Ajax) and Paul Revvington (Great Britain Head coach). He has done the hard yards in coaching in Malaysia, South Africa and Ireland, where he has been living for the last 17 years.
In his tenure so far, Malaysia has broken into the top 10 of the FIH ranking for the first time since 2010 and qualified for the World Cup in Odisha earlier this year. But most importantly for Arul, he feels his players are empowered to think better and become leaders across the pitch.
“The first day of my press conference [as Malaysia’s head coach], I was very curt with the team. I told them, ‘I cannot make you guys win, only you guys can do that.’,” he says.
“By empowering them, the players have taken a big responsibility in improving themselves not just in playing hockey but in every aspect of the game. I was delighted because the pandemic gave me an opportunity to make the players think and grow as a coach and empower them. I empower them to take charge and be a leader on the pitch. We don’t have one captain, we have seven or eight guys who form the leadership group.”
Under Arul’s tutelage, the players run the team meetings, including preparing powerpoint preparations. The players show it to Arul, who adds his input before it is presented to the others.
“What I did was help change the players’ mindset. That is my biggest, I am excited about changing their mindset about how to train, why they need to train and what to train. That gives me happiness. The players have taken on the approach. When you come to train, you need to have your heart, mind and soul fully on the training,” he says.
“We have changed our training concept, training time, intensity and tempo. I came with an ideology. I am a Malaysian, who has been living abroad for 17 years. I understand international hockey, Malaysian culture, their mentality and the players. It’s easier to bring my ideas to them and they have changed a lot about how they think about the game.”
Arul moulded his approach to coaching after his sour experience as a player for the national team. He retired from the national team at just the age of 24 after the 1998 World Cup in the Netherlands.
He breathes a big sigh remembering his playing days.
“When I moved from the junior to the national team, I was 18-19 years old. I came to a point in my career where I had more disappointments than glory as a player. It’s frustration after frustration. I was dropped seven times as a national team player. Azlan Shah Cup, Indhira Gandhi Cup, Asian Games and the Olympics,” he says.
“I said I needed to create a name for myself as a player and do something. I scored the winning goal against South Africa in the World Cup qualifiers in 1997 and then I went to the World Cup.”
“I was disappointed in the way it was run where committed, disciplined and fit players were not seen much and they were looking more at skilfull players. So when I came back, I quit. I became a hockey coach by chance and I carried the ideology in me that I would never play players based on favouritism or just skills. I would select based on trust, communication and hard work, the ethics which I carry. Hockey skills were my last selection criteria. I have my soldiers who will fight on the field,” he adds.
Arul believes his ‘soldiers’ will fight tooth and nail to achieve the objective of Olympics qualification and lead his team to Paris.
- ISL 2023-24: Super sub Victor Rodriguez brings three points home for FC Goa against Jamshedpur FC as it goes on top of the table
- Al Nassr vs Persepolis LIVE Updates, AFC Champions League 2023-24: Cristiano Ronaldo, Mane, Brozovic starts
- Mohun Bagan Super Giant vs Odisha FC Highlights, AFC Cup: MBSG 2-5 OFC, Juggernauts beat Mariners to stay second
- Prannoy, Lakshya withdraw from Syed Modi International 2023
- Hockey Nationals 2023: Defending champions Haryana to face Punjab in the final