The continent has a shining record

S. THYAGARAJAN

FORMIDABLE. No other epithet can more appropriately convey the essence of the Asian challenge in the World Cup. Even a cursory glance of the previous editions from 1971 will underline the dominance of Asia, particularly Pakistan, whose record is exemplary.

Of the nine World Cups, only two, Willesden in 1986 and Utrecht in 1988, witnessed a final without an Asian team. And, incredibly, Pakistan figured in six finals, winning the cup four times, while India contested two, one with Pakistan in 1975 when it won the trophy, and against the Dutch in 1973 at Amstelveen.

Notwithstanding such a shining record, both in the Olympics and in the World Cup, Asian hegemony today is a myth. South Korea will be the third force. It will be interesting to divine the intensity of the Asian content and component in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps for the first time, the continent enjoys the luxury of seeing five in the fray, thanks to the enlarged list of 16 for the first time battling for honours.

If track-record is any guide, then it speaks eloquently in favour of Pakistan. Recent events however prompt a degree of apprehension. Not everything has been smooth sailing since the last triumph in 1994, during the twilight years of the incomparable stick-artist, Shahbaz Ahmed. But it is goal-keeper Manzoor who, and rightly so, is remembered for the Sydney triumph in the tie-breaker against the Netherlands.

Thereafter, the slump has been gradual, yet pronounced. The administrative imbroglio has cast a shadow on the overall efficiency. The talent flow has been meagre - the Pakis were not even in the 16 for the junior World Cup - and, today, we have the spectacle of Shahbaz donning the colours again, casting aside his role as the coach. At 35, how much can he deliver on the world stage remains to be seen.

Fifth at the last edition at Utrecht, and fourth in the Olympics at Sydney, Pakistan should be able to perform well in the tough group that includes, Germany, Holland, Argentina and Spain. But a motivated Pakistani squad with Shahbaz in attack and the classy flicker of Sohail Abbas in form can well craft a brilliant script. The fortunes rest squarely on the shoulders of Sohail Abbas. The recent win in the six nation tournament must have cast aside the element of self-doubt, so noticeable in the earlier events.

There is nothing to portray India in iridescent colours in the World Cup after the introduction of the synthetic pitch. The fifth place in 1994 was the highest it could reach. The last edition was a disaster, though the ninth spot did not correctly reflect the strength and depth of the team led by Dhanraj Pillay. But the intervening period has witnessed a noticeable regeneration, thanks to the sprouting of talent at the junior level. The junior World Cup triumph at Hobart prompted a degree of pronounced optimism, which got a boost at the recent Champions Challenge. Among the five Asian countries, India and Japan, have come in after the qualifiers at Edinburgh.

India's strength lies in team-work, in the absence of stars who can be described as trumpcards as in the case of Pakistan. True, Dhanraj and Baljit Dhillon command attention from the rival defence for their perceived stature, but neither can turn the match topsy-turvey like Shahbaz or Sohail. Happily, however, the team has been well prepared under the academic coach, Cedric D'Souza, and exudes enviable confidence and assurance. The youth content, symbolised so well by Deepak Thakur, Arjun Halappa, and Prabhot Singh, a strong mid-field consisting of Thirumalvalavan and Sukbir Singh Gill, a well laid out deep defence headed by Dilip Tirkey, and supported under the bar by the experienced Jude Menezes give the team a healthy look and the confidence to predict a semi-final berth in a comparatively easier Pool 'B'.

Emerging as a force in 1986 Asiad, the South Koreans progressed at a remarkable pace, synthesising the best of Asian and European systems. The silver medal at the Sydney Olympiad gave them the status of a world power. But there is a veneer of inconsistency since then. The reverse - last place - in the recent Champions Trophy has raised misgivings whether the change of coach has inflicted a heavy damage to the system. Capable of coming back anytime to the fore, the South Koreans, with the players like Yong Bae, Seong Tae Song and Seong Jung Kang, are sure to finish higher than the seventh from the last edition. South Korea played first in the World Cup in 1994 after the qualifier from Poznan.

The Malaysians are bound to recall with nostalgia the last event in 1975 at Kuala Lumpur, where the team figured in the semi-final against India. In the other four appearances, the rating for Malaysia was only in double digits; 11th in 1973, 10th in 1978, 10th in 1982, and 11th in 1998. Known for their inspired performances before the home crowd, the Malaysians have not been going through a confident phase recently. Their recent record in the Azlan Shah as also in the Champions Challenge and the invitation tournament is anything but sparkling despite the splendid showing in the early part of the tournaments.

Enjoying the benefit of advise from such a renowned coach as Paul Lissek, the Malaysians need to break the chain of disastrous final stage displays under pressure. With seasoned men like Mirnawan and Nor Azlan Baker, supported by Kuhen and Mainderjit Singh in the defence, the Kalikavandan brothers, Logen Raj and Kavin Raj, in the fray, the Malaysians have the strength to upset any calculations.

Back into the fold through the qualifier after finishing 10th in 1973 at Amsterdam, Japan is an inscrutable entity, capable of producing fast paced hockey, which can unsettle any defence. Strikers like Takhashi and Iwadate are good enough to challenge any goal-keeper.