The first time the Chinese media bothered to speak to one of their players post-match after a week’s hockey action at the Asian Games was on Monday night, following the men’s team’s incredible performance which saw it top Pool B and advance to the semifinals.
Of course, with the host hoarding medals by the dozen every day – it had won 279 at the time of writing with an incredible 154 gold – hockey would unsurprisingly rank low on the priority list.
But Monday’s interaction was respect earned against all odds by the world no. 22 side that entered the semifinals for only the second time ever.
At the other end of the spectrum were Pakistan – an eight-time champion – and Malaysia – an eight-time medallist and the only other team besides India in the top 10 – dumped out of the competition and left to wonder about what might have been.
As much as the rise of China means well for the sport, the decline of the game’s overall standards in the continent should be a cause for concern for Asian administrators.
Barely two months ago, a different Malaysian team had given India a run for its money in the final of the Asian Champions Trophy and sent out a warning to other teams for the Asiad, where China finished last with one draw and four losses.
But even then, there were signs that this Chinese team would not be a pushover at home. Against Malaysia, the hero again was goalkeeper Caiyu Wang, bringing about some incredible saves.
“The will to win was not there. Our 1 vs 1 defending wasn’t great. We are better at playing hockey but they were better physically and used that well. They played intelligent hockey and relied on counter-attacks, overheads, long balls and accurate penalty corners,” coach Arul Anthoni Selvaraj was quoted as saying.
“We have only ourselves to blame for the defeat against South Korea and the draw against China. We have to sit as a group and assess the situation, see where we are headed,” he added.
Nevertheless, Malaysia did come up with some decent performances through the tournament and has been doing reasonably well in recent times, something that cannot be said for Pakistan.
The erstwhile powerhouse and one of the most successful teams in hockey history across competitions has appeared a very poor imitation of its former self.
Even at ACT, despite the losses, Pakistan showed traces of individual brilliance and a willingness to fight. Here, it looked like a bunch of schoolboys being thrown into the deep end without preparation or support.
Coaches were changed after ACT, infighting continued, there was no clarity on personnel or purpose and the same players who impressed in Chennai were listless and invisible.
Captain Umar Bhutta looked pained to be on the field, helplessly moving around to marshal his troops, aware it was a lost cause.
And while head coach Saeed Khan was quoted as listing multiple reasons for poor performance in Pakistan media, he conspicuously omitted one – moving out of their past’s shadow, something that held Indian hockey back for decades before a system overhaul in 2010.
For a continent the size of Asia, having just two teams in the top 10 – Europe has six – doesn’t augur well both on and off the field.
While India continues to be the outlier to the general Asian slide, a weaker continent will force the team to move more and more out in search of competitive experience.
South Korea, once a dominant force in world hockey, faded away for more than a decade before slowly coming back recently. Japan punched much above its weight last time to claim its maiden Asian Games title (in 2018) but has struggled to stay at the same level ever since.
Already there are talks of how, as the lone team in the Pro League, it gets a disproportionate share of ranking points. But the fact is that financial constraints have forced other teams to stay away.
Pakistan was one of the original invitees to the Pro League when it was envisaged in 2019 but pulled out because of the budget involved. Lack of competition will inevitably lead to a further slide in teams’ skill levels and their financial comfort.
Off the field, too, the lack of a strong Asian bloc is likely to lead to a reclamation of administrative control by Europe, something it has been trying since the economic base of the sport moved eastwards.
The last two presidents of FIH, including the incumbent Tayyab Ikram and Narinder Batra, have been vocal about diversifying power and representation and tried to ensure more visibility for Asia and Africa.
But eventually, it all boils down to performance on the field, translating into more lucrative deals off it. And an absence of the former won’t help.
Coming back to the Asian Games, India will take on South Korea in the semifinals on Wednesday but would do well to be wary of the past – the only previous time India finished out of the podium was also the only time China made it to the last four, in 2006.
While a lot has changed since, India still needs to guard against any complacency. It hurt the Indians badly in 2018 (when it lost 6-7 on penalties to Malaysia) and a repeat will be disastrous.
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