No denying Janneke Schopman’s contribution but missing Olympics made her stay untenable

For a team Schopman took charge of on a high of fourth position at Tokyo, failure to qualify for Paris was the biggest setback and the murmurs of her sacking that began in Hangzhou only grew into a cacophony of complaints in Ranchi.

Published : Feb 24, 2024 18:29 IST , NEW DELHI - 6 MINS READ

FILE PHOTO: Janneke Schopman.
FILE PHOTO: Janneke Schopman. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT/THE HINDU

FILE PHOTO: Janneke Schopman. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT/THE HINDU

Janneke Schopman officially quit as chief coach of the Indian women’s hockey team on Friday, bringing the curtains down on her two-year tenure as the first-ever woman in the role.

It had been a roller-coaster ride for the Dutchwoman, stepping up from analytical coach to compatriot Sjoerd Marijne after the Tokyo Olympics in a rare instance of continuity in Indian hockey. Her emotional outburst in the media after the team’s last Pro League match in Rourkela triggered a debate on both the functioning of the federation and women in Indian sports. The arguments ranged from a blanket criticism of everything being wrong with the administration to questioning Schopman’s abilities and credibility. Truth, as always, might lie somewhere in-between.

Professional sports is tough business, more so in team events, one that requires a hundred different things to fall in place, at the right time and moment, to ensure elusive success. But the parameter to measure that success is just one –results. As a coach, Schopman’s tenure saw the Indian women manage to do the first to a large extent. The second, however, remained a mixed bag.

The team’s best outcomes in major events came at the 2022 Nations Cup (earning a Pro League spot), bronze at 2023 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and the Asian Champions Trophy (winners). At other competitions, the disappointment was glaring -- 9th at the 2022 World Cup, third at the Asia Cup but the biggest was missing the Paris Olympics after finishing fourth out of eight teams in Ranchi. For a team she took charge of on a high of fourth position at Tokyo, this was the biggest setback and the murmurs of her sacking that began in Hangzhou only grew into a cacophony of complaints in Ranchi.

READ | Failure to qualify for Paris Olympics poses plenty of questions for Indian women’s hockey

There is no denying the positivity and confidence she brought into the team. The Indian women, after a long time, looked like they belonged on the big stage, among the top-tier of teams in world hockey. The team displayed a brand of attacking hockey that mirrored its confidence. In line with the ways of modern sports, she tried to build a team for the future, bringing in youngsters like Salima Tete and Sangita Kumari from the junior ranks and creating a group that was more than any of its individual parts.

Her handling of the personnel, in fact, has been a dividing factor. She recently opened up for the first time on how Rani Rampal did not fit into her plans going forward, physically and otherwise, and the latter’s invisible influence on the team from outside. But the Indian team’s problems go beyond Rani.

Gurjit Kaur was the mainstay of India’s scoring with her potent drag-flicks, something both Harendra Singh and Sjoerd Marijne worked on diligently. But she fell off the radar after Tokyo and there was no substitute. When she did return, at the Olympic qualifiers, she was a shadow of her old self. Sure, preparing a player for the top level takes time. But before she designated Deepika Kumari as the next big thing for penalty corners, the Indian team had no one in that role, with Deep Grace Ekka stepping in when required. Ekka refused to be with the team just before the Qualifiers amidst rumours of a rift, announcing her retirement soon after.

Other senior players in the side have been vocal about her unflinching support. Savita Punia, Vandana Katariya and Navneet Kaur are some of those who have been around for a while now and have repeatedly stressed on the hard yards and long hours Schopman has put into developing the team. Unfortunately, they have not translated into the results she would have liked.

The Indian team, under her, played six major semifinals – and lost four of them, two in shoot-outs. It is easy to blame a coach for the lack of results if a team seems clueless or unable to match up to its opponents. But the Indian women have, more often than not in the last two years, shown they have the ability to take the fight to the best sides, creating chances by the dozen. Not being able to convert them into goals is a problem that is as much on the players as the coach.

Ironically, It’s a problem that pre-dates Schopman and its continuance is one of the reasons for questions on her role. It’s also a problem that cannot be explained with numbers. Numbers and statistics are more flexible than an Olympic gymnast. It is true that, since her taking charge, India has won 37 of the 73 games played with 212 goals scored. It is equally true that 16 of the wins came against teams like Ghana, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia that are not traditionally big on hockey, accounting for almost 50 percent of the goals.

What is more concerning is the team’s recent performances against the likes of China, Japan and USA, teams that India has historically done well against. It’s not that India has become bad – rather, it’s about them improving much more. Against teams ranked higher, India continues to struggle.

Off field, things are equally opaque. Schopman has spoken about being disrespected and feeling alone in her tenure, adding it was something she felt even as assistant to Marijne but proceeded to take up the job nevertheless. She has also insisted that Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey has been a big support, especially after knives were out for her after failing to win the Asian Games. Tirkey himself, as a former captain, understands the responsibilities of both coach and players and has repeatedly put his weight behind Schopman, insisting that the coach was not to be blamed for players’ inability to score. Clearly, there are groups within the federation that have differences. One wonders if those against her were powerful enough to negate the goodwill and unflinching support from Tirkey.

Hockey India is, for now, taking its time to decide the further course of action. With the European leg of the Pro League only in May and not much action in between till the Paris Olympics, the federation has time to find Schopman’s replacement. Senior officials have insisted that there would be no stopgap arrangements or ad-hoc appointments. “There is the World Cup in 2026 and then the LA Olympics in 2028. We may not have qualified for Paris but that is no reason to go back to zero, we will continue on the development course that we have set. The women’s team is important for us. The long-term targets haven’t changed so any decision will be made with those in mind,” they have insisted.

For now, Schopman’s resignation is simply the end of yet another tumultuous chapter in the history of Indian hockey.

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