PETALING JAYA: The national men’s World Cup hockey team in 1975 was all about lump-in-the-throat exploits.
Malaysians got so deeply invested in every match the host nation played.
The appeal of the players went beyond the field of play. They were unique, refreshing and life-affirming.
We never saw those electrifying moments again in the hockey World Cup.
And the names of the players who stoked our fascination seem to have slipped the memories of many.
We kept quiet about the likes of Seremban-born right-inside Franco Louis D’Cruz, a forward of power, acceleration, audacity and vision.
Just as he kept quiet about himself. Kept quiet far too long. In his case 48 years too long.
Olympian D’Cruz migrated to Australia in 1973 and the retired accountant now lives in Barking, London.
Earlier this month, he attended the Sports Flame reunion of sporting legends, along with several hockey world cuppers and Olympians.
The delight in the Christmas season becomes greater when we appreciate the story of a person who tackled the odds, ignored the cynics, silenced the critics, and overcame.
In a rare interview with FMT, D’Cruz talked about his playing days, a lack of recognition for accomplished sportspeople, and about his sports-loving grandchildren.
Time has been kind to D’Cruz. At 77, the six-footer can easily be mistaken for a middle-aged man, whose discreet charm and unfailing courtesy vary from his once fierceness as a hotshot goal-getter.
Silky, smooth striker
D’Cruz was a dazzling dribbler who could cut open defences with a feint or two, and a wide smile on his face.
He said when he played in Australia, he was nicknamed “silky, smooth”.
In 1974, he played for New South Wales, captained by an Anglo-Indian, Godfrey Phillips. That side lost to Western Australia in the final of the nationals.
Later, he was the only Asian player in the highly-successful Victoria side for whom he played for four years from 1976.
It was an amazing feat for a man whose father, George Frederick, wanted him to focus on education, and never watched any of the games he played up to when he died in 1965.
Could he have walked into the Australia national team?
In 1974, New South Wales finished second in the national championships, and the Australian team for the ’75 World Cup was announced after the prize-giving ceremony.
“It was quite embarrassing because some in the crowd began yelling out my name.
“In hindsight, I would have had a bad time here if I had been picked for Australia. I was pleased to have been selected for Malaysia.”
Get back “white boy”
D’Cruz endured some unpleasantness before and after coming to Kuala Lumpur for the World Cup, accused of turning his back on country and “white country” bias.
“I believe there was some rejection to me being called back to play for the country,” said D’Cruz, a Malayalee.
Certain politicians in Negeri Sembilan apparently questioned why the team needed somebody who had immigrated.
Fullback A Francis who came from West Germany was spared such an attack.
D’Cruz said after Malaysia’s goalless draw in their opening match against New Zealand, there were comments that he did not play well against a “white country”.
“It was the first game, nerves and everything else, and I can say I didn’t perform as well as I should have, or could have.
“The remarks affected me badly but coach Ho Koh Chye told me to ignore them and focus on the games ahead,” D’Cruz said.
In the following matches, D’Cruz and his teammates came in with a force that carried a well-built team on to an entirely different level.
He said his favourite hockey moment was beating the Netherlands at Kilat Club padang to make the last four of the tournament, and the saddest was when Malaysia lost 3-2 to India in the semi-final.
In the end, they won nothing, finishing fourth overall, but D’Cruz said it is hard to believe such a time ever existed.
Franco being frank
In his early playing days, D’Cruz raged when opposition players used rough tactics to put him off his game.
Over time, he cooled down on the advice of his coaches who told him to use his tremendous skills instead of losing his temper.
He was 21 when Malaysia played against Pakistan in Lahore before the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and he had to face a burly fullback named Tanvir Ahmed Dar.
After he easily beat Tanvir twice, the Pakistani warned him, “next time you do it, I will break your leg.” The threat made D’Cruz more ruthless in attack.
He said playing in the leagues in Australia and competitions abroad enabled him to enhance his skills, and to further build mental strength and confidence.
The St Paul’s Institution (SPI) alumnus embodied the spirit of Seremban Rangers, who were trained by the legends Lawrence van Huizen, his brother Peter and William Fidelis.
They unearthed raw talent and developed them at the NS Padang, producing numerous national and international players. One of them was Brian Sta Maria, a defender in the ’75 World Cup team.
Asked whether the ’75 team was better than the ’72 Munich Olympics squad that finished eighth, he said: “The best team that left Malaysia was the ‘68 Olympics team although we finished second last overall.
“The ’72 players were good and could have had a better overall finishing, while in ’75 we peaked at the right time and had home ground advantage.”
He said results-wise, the ’75 team was the best “but if you look at what the current players get, we are a forgotten lot.
“The team manager (Raja Azlan Shah) eventually became sultan and king, and if he felt he wanted to reward the players with titles, he would have done it.
“It’s the same with the ’68 guys, who would say not enough has been done for them.”
D’Cruz felt those who have represented the country at the highest level should be given fast-tracked medical treatment, insurance coverage, and be eligible for pension.
“They must not be made to look as if they are begging for aid,” he said. “They should never become a liability to their families.”
He suggested those who quit playing in their 30s can be absorbed into the hockey structure as coaches in schools and institutions of higher learning.
D’Cruz lights up like a Christmas tree around the family, which includes four daughters, five granddaughters and three grandsons.
“I’ve told my daughters, it’s getting to be a costly exercise, so stay at eight,” he joked.
Hockey runs in the family with his 12-year-old granddaughter, Matilda, playing for the Spencer Hockey Club in London, while grandson Charles is a school player. Charles’ sister, Isabella is into equestrian.
Seeing them play hockey reminds D’Cruz of the time when he received his first hockey stick as a 6-year-old, broke it the same day, and went on to make another from the guava tree.
That will be a good story for grandpa to tell the kids today. Merry Christmas.