Myanmar's hockey boys dream of upset against Malaysia
Former Pakistan star on a mission as his men prepare for huge test today
MALAYSIA v MYANMAR
(Today, 5pm, Sengkang Hockey Stadium)
They are not listed on the world rankings of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), and their name does not even appear on the Asian order.
The Myanmar men's hockey team have hardly registered as a bleep on the international radar, but they have already made quite a bang at this SEA Games.
Led by Pakistani coach Muhammad Akhlaq, Myanmar stopped the game for six minutes to protest against a Singapore goal they felt was unjustified as they held the hosts to a surprise 1-1 draw.
They beat Thailand 3-1 and, as unlikely as it sounds, Myanmar could possibly knock Singapore - a country with a proud hockey history - out of the gold-medal match, should they avoid defeat against a dominant Malaysian side tonight at the Sengkang Stadium.
It doesn't quite have the wow factor of a group of Jamaican men at a Winter Olympics racing downhill at breakneck speed, but Myanmar's hockey run from Yangon to Sengkang does have a bit of the cool runnings about it.
"The Myanmar Hockey Federation is poor, but I cannot describe the great support that the team have been getting, especially from president Htin Zaw Win," Akhlaq, a former Pakistan star told The New Paper.
"There's only one hockey pitch in Myanmar and this team have not played an international match since the last SEA Games, and you wouldn't believe it, but there are only 30 hockey players in all of Myanmar. But we believe we can do something here."
Akhlaq spent five months preparing his men for the 2013 Games in Naypidaw, and returned to the job eight months ago to get the team ready for battle in Singapore.
He came back to do justice to this team - and finish a job he believes he started in 2013.
"I turned down a job offer in Sri Lanka for this. I live in a room at the hockey stadium - far below my standards, but I need to take up this challenge," said the 44-year-old, who was part of the bronze-winning Pakistan side at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
"I'm here to prove a point and satisfy my own goals as a professional coach, and also do something for the sport.
"I could get paid double what I get with Myanmar, but this is something I need to do - we didn't win a single match in the group in 2013, and there's no justice if I didn't come back."
Whatever the Myanmar men achieve here, Akhlaq will pack his bags and leave that little room in the stadium in Yangon after the tournament and head for Holland, where he will lead the first team of Dutch club side Vaught.
He is already proud of his charges.
"We don't have many skilful players at all and when you are very much behind other teams in the region, it's all about planning and coaching," he said.
"And the attitude of the players help, too, they know they are behind, and they keep fighting in training, and in the match for every ball, until it is over."
Just before the interview on Monday, Akhlaq was overheard in an argument with a Myanmar official, about "respect", and "being treated with dignity", but he brushed that off, turning instead to the task at hand - knocking hosts Singapore out of the gold-medal match.
He first started with a complaint, then ended with a prediction that would surely propel Myanmar from a regional little-know to a country that takes Asia by storm.
"I've looked at the video 100 times, and I can tell you that goal Singapore scored against us is 100 per cent not a goal," he said, explaining his six-minute protest in Myanmar's opening fixture.
"But that's over now. We play Malaysia and they are much better than us," said Akhlaq. "But if we play to our plan, I think we can take some points (off them), and maybe even win gold."
"There are only 30 hockey players in all of Myanmar. But we believe we can do something here "
- Myanmar coach Muhammad Akhlaq