The pride of wearing the Harimau Malaya jersey is still enormous today as it was 44 years ago, says Tan Cheng Hoe in this exclusive interview Playing for the national team was once seen as the pinnacle of any footballer’s career, more so when their teams are able to achieve success at the international stage like the Asian Cup, Copa America, European Championship and the ultimate prize that is the World Cup.
But the game has developed such that for some players, club football has superseded international football. Gone were the days when international football was looked at as one of the means to get on an aeroplane and going abroad maybe even for the first time in that player’s life.
The Malaysia national team saw plenty of that in the 70s with back-to-back Asian Cup appearances in 1976 and 1980, as well as qualifying for the Olympics. It was the heyday for Malaysian football and one which evokes strong memories of anyone who followed the progress at that time.Editors’ Picks
Tan Cheng Hoe was in his teen years during that glory period and just like everyone else was at that time, looked at the national team in awe and admiration. It imbued in him that desire not only for the game but also to emulate what his heroes did, a feeling felt by a whole generation.
“First thing was the feeling of being proud because the national team was doing so well. I’ve spoken to a lot of the players from that era and the general feeling is that the passion was really there. Those days money wasn’t number one. It was important to represent the country, to die for the country was all that was in the minds of the players then. To play for the national team wasn’t easy.
“When we saw all the great players like Datuk Soh Chin Aun, Mokhtar Dahari and Arumugam – it motivated us to play and hopefully be able to replicate what they did for the country,” Cheng Hoe told Goal.
An inspired Cheng Hoe took up the sport with the same dedication and determination those before him had shown him as a youngster. He finally caught the attention of the then Malaysia head coach in M. Karathu in 1991 as Cheng Hoe joined the national team for the very first time.
It was only an invitational tournament in Nepal that Cheng Hoe participated in as a representative of the senior national team but it didn’t make the fleeting moment any less important to him. Here he was finally being able to do what his wide-eyed self saw all those years ago.
“Definitely I felt the excitement of being called for the first time to join the national team training. All the top players like Serbegeth Singh, Dollah Salleh, Zainal Abidin and Razip Ismail were there. Even though I wasn’t in the squad for a long period and only played in an invitational tournament, I was immeasurably proud to be able to put on the national team jersey.”
Hanging up his playing boots in 2001, Cheng Hoe quickly turned his attention towards coaching and was part of the staff that helped K. Rajagopal led Malaysia to the 2010 AFF Championship triumph. He would soon progress up the ranks proving his coaching quality with Kedah before the national team came calling once again.
Made the permanent head coach of the senior team in December of 2017, it was now Cheng Hoe’s turn to ensure that the motivation and desire to play for the national team is passed to the next generation of players like the Chin Aun and Mokhtar did for him.
“Majority of the players are excited and motivated to come to the national team. Before call-up, we would check with the players not only on their fitness condition and well-being but we also gauge a little their excitement of getting the call. Especially with some of the first time call-ups, you can imagine some thought we were playing a prank on them!
“Certain sections of the fans may think that some players consider playing for the national team just like any other matches but at least from the squads that I’ve taken, I can assure them that is not the case. They are really motivated and have a real desire to make the country proud.”
Technological improvements meant that every match that the national team plays now can be followed by millions and millions of fans. A big microscope is placed on the team on a permanent basis with the all media attention and presence of social media where reaction is immediate.
Expectations are set, rightly or wrongly and that can cause a huge burden on the players in the national team in this present time. Compared with the past where players are more shielded from the public, the attention in the modern game can take its toll on the players.
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Cheng Hoe is fully aware of the pitfalls of today’s game and knows more than ever that he has to do his part as coach to ensure that his players can concentrate on their performance in training and in the match without the fear of external consequences.
“As the coach, I always tell my players that when they are called up to the national team, the burden is on me. I take the pressure and the challenge. If the team doesn’t do well, I will not mention anyone in particular when talking to the media. I will take the full responsibility. In that way, the players feel a slight ease on the pressure from the public.
“At times I also take these players to one side and speak to them. Telling them that we do not expect to change them when they are with the national team but merely to advise them to be better players. Because once we are able to do that, it will also help them in their next contract,” said Cheng Hoe.
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