Thursday 29 May 2014

Al-Fatihah - HRH Sultan Azlan Shah

[caption id="attachment_1063" align="aligncenter" width="312"]                HRH Sultan Azlan Shah 1928 - 2014[/caption]


KUALA LUMPUR: THE Father of Malaysian Hockey left his mark on so many areas of the sport that it would be impossible for any other official to even come close to his work since 1966.

Sultan Azlan Shah had not only established his own invitational tournament which has been running since 1983, but was also credited with founding the Yayasan Hoki Malaysia (YHM) in 1992.

The foundation helps national players to further their studies, and provides them financial assistance, depending on the number of caps when they retire.

Back then, there was no help for players who needed money to enrol into universities, but when the father of one player approached Sultan Azlan in the 1990s, he started the ball rolling for a foundation to give players the opportunity to have a better future when they hang up their hockey sticks.

Some players became professionals, such as doctors and engineers, with the help of the YHM, which also gives out medical benefits and other forms of aid to players facing financial difficulty after they were no longer playing with the national team.

Sultan Azlan's vision to organise an international tournament in 1983 won accolades from the International Hockey Federation as the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup became the longest running private tournament in the world.

The idea for the tournament began in 1980 when Sultan Azlan looked at the Malaysian Hockey Federation (MHF) accounts and saw that travelling overseas to play friendlies takes a big chunk of their annual budget.

This story was told to me by the late MHF secretary S. Satgunam: "The Sultan then asked me and Tan Sri (P. Alagendra, former MHF deputy president), what if we brought six teams to Malaysia to play in a tournament instead of sending the Malaysian team to six countries to play friendly matches?

"Would it not cut travelling, accommodation and food costs by more than half?

"The meeting room fell silent, after which there was a round of applause before we started working on the idea, and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was born," revealed Satgunam.

In 1983, that suggestion became a reality, and Australia became the champion with Pakistan as runner-up, India in third and Malaysia in fourth place.

Back then, the teams were provided with flight tickets. Now, boarding and lodging are still free for invited sides.

There was all the glitter and fanfare at the Sultan Azlan Shah Stadium this year, with the fans turned up in full force as the Malaysian team went on a roll, but missing was Sultan Azlan, his golden coloured chair empty as he fought his private battle with illness.

It was a sad sight, as the chair was never empty when he was previously healthy. Sultan Azlan used to arrive 30 minutes before the first match, which would normally start at 5pm, and then watch the 7pm as well as 9pm matches before departing.

It was a routine in every match day of his tournament, until recently, as Malaysia won back-to-back silver medals in the last two editions. Sadly, he was not well to watch both achievements.

Sultan Azlan was ever the gentleman, as even when the press criticised him relentlessly in 2004, and called for his resignation as MHF president, he always had a smile for the writers.

After one hard-hitting article, which outlined the failure of the MHF to help its states develop grassroots hockey, the body held an emergency meeting, and among the resolutions was to sue the press.

Following a two-hour meeting, out came Sultan Azlan with a smile: "Jugjet, the council wants to sue you for the article today... but I told them to relax, as the points raised were not allegations, but the truth."

He then stepped down as MHF president and handed over the reins to his son, Raja Nazrin Shah, but kept playing an active role as the Asian Hockey Federation president as well as a board member of the International Hockey Federation till the very end.

In his last meeting with me, three Azlan Shah Cups ago, when he was still able to watch matches, the Sultan called me again to meet him outside the stadium after Malaysia played another really bad match.

Sultan Azlan rarely cracked jokes, so he caught me by surprise when he whispered into my ears: "Japan, South Korea and Malaysia went to meet God and ask him the same question. Japan asked first 'When will they win the World Cup', and God answered 'Soon' and the whole of Japan cried in happiness.

"Korea asked the same question, and the answer was also 'Soon', and the whole of Korea cried in joy. Then came Malaysia's turn, and when we asked God when will the Malaysian hockey team win the World Cup... God cried."

It was a joke with a reality punch line that caught me by surprise and I asked him if I could quote him in the next article, and he replied: "Not as long as I'm still around", and gave me a knowing smile.

The best Malaysia could give Sultan Azlan at his own invitational tournament was a handful of silver medals, but never a gold medal.

Nonetheless, he had certainly left Malaysia a gold mine in legacy when he first came up with the tournament.

Tributes and pictures of the learned Sultan in The New Straits Times today. 

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