Ric Charlesworth needs no introduction. Often considered the best hockey coach in the world, he is unique in his achievements -- winning the World Cup, twice over, with both the Australian men and women, the Olympics with the Hockeyroos and every other major competition – besides being the top-scorer en route to Australia’s maiden World Cup triumph in 1986.
And while he’s decided to opt out of an official role with any team now, the man whom former India coach Harendra Singh calls the ‘Bheeshma Pitamah’ of hockey coaching has continued to keep a keen eye on the evolving world order in the sport as a commentator and understands the level of competition at the top.
So when he calls India among the favourites to reach at least the semifinals this time around, you ought to take him seriously. “I honestly can’t pick a winner to bet on. Last time, I had thought Belgium and Australia would play the final but Australia lost out in a semifinal shoot-out. This time, I think there are five teams for four spots and the semi-finalists will come from Belgium, Germany, Holland, India and Australia. That’s the goal, of course. I am always worried though, because something goes wrong and then you don’t get to the quarterfinals. It’s just one game every time,” he told Sportstar in an exclusive chat.
Charlesworth should know. He has been on the losing side as a player as much as the winning one, both at the Olympics (1976 and 1984) and the World Cups (1978 and 1982) despite the Australians being as dominant as ever. But 1986, he admitted, was different.
“We had played the previous two World Cups losing just a game each. And then in Los Angeles we lost to Pakistan in the semifinals, we hadn’t done as well as we should have and that was disappointing. So we went to 1986 hoping to improve on that. I suppose it was the emphatic nature of our play that was different. I think it was the first time we started to substitute our players; we didn’t play the same team every day; we rested people and had depth.
“Australia has the best record of any nation at the World Cups in terms of win percentage and goals scored, we were always close. But I think when we finally won in 1986, there was a belief ‘we can do this’. This was the first major tournament, men or women, that we won. But winning the Champions Trophy in 1983 started it all. I think winning those tournaments made a difference to the psyche of the players,” he acknowledged.
It would be another 24 years before Australia claimed its second World Cup but there was no let up in the team’s domination in that period. The reclamation also coincided with Charlesworth returning to the men’s team, this time as coach, and bringing his magic touch with him. But Indian hockey had a chance to utilise him earlier, Charlesworth even preparing a blueprint to revive the game here, before being unceremoniously sacked.
“I was in India in 2008 and I said it would be 10 years if you want to build this group and be in the top five and that’s where India is realistically now, right? But it’s not that simple. You look around -- Belgium has improved a lot, Holland and Germany and Australia are always good and now you have Great Britain with a very good team and Spain is always difficult, so it’s very competitive. I think the Hockey India League was really important in building the belief and unless they get it started again, maybe the benefit of that will be lost,” he declared.
He signs off with the secret to what makes a great team different from a very good one – being a team. “In the end, you can have brilliant individuals, and you need those brilliant individuals, the very best teams have those -- Mohammed Shahid was a magician, the player of the tournament in 1986, the most difficult player to play against -- but you can’t bring individuals and expect them to win by themselves. The best teams have the capacity to cooperate with one another, be together, the players complementing one another. They make each other better while making space for individual brilliance.
“We saw this (in the FIFA World Cup final). Brilliant individual performances from (Kylian) Mbappe and Messi. But perhaps Messi’s teammates supported him better. I’m not sure that the Indian team that won in 1975 was better individually than Pakistan at the time. They just played together better. And sometimes that might mean some players sublimating their personal ambitions or curtailing their flamboyance for the greater good while allowing the brilliant individual to be brilliant and cover for him,” he said.
Sounds easy to say, if only it was as easy to execute.