A season of hope

Champs delight… the victorious Indian team celebrates after hammering South Korea in the Asia Cup final.-R. RAGU

India’s finest moment in 2007 was its Asia Cup triumph in Chennai. The defending champion’s sequence of wins and its 7-2 demolition of South Korea in the final made the victory all the more sweet. By S. Thyagarajan.

Introspection into what competitive hockey was all about last year will envelop the chronicler in a melange of emotions. Definitely, it was not vibrant, or varied in interests like 2006, which witnessed two World Championships apart from a plethora of events. The year 2007 was nevertheless eventful, even exotic in phases, engendering new power alignments and equations.

In a nutshell, hockey continued to present a pleasant panorama of performance, portraying players of extraordinary merit, and purveying to the aficionados an enchanting spectrum and the underlying fecundity of the sport.

Even from India’s perspective, 2007 was a year of hope, quite in contrast to the mood of despair with which it began. The pain of the humiliation suffered at the Doha Asian Games lingered even after 2007 had dawned. The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), understandably caught in the horns of a dilemma, had to come up with solutions to keep the interest in the sport alive. The only course it was left with was to change the guard. So, IHF moved Vasudevan Baskaran out and brought Olympian Joaquim Carvalho, who bristled with fresh ideas, in his place.

Carvalho realised the seriousness of the task, but faced the challenge with a brave heart. He quietly went about applying his mind and strategies and shunned media criticism, which gave rise to the feeling that more and more players from his pool were getting back into the team. But as the results began to pan out, such thinking took a backseat. Besides, Carvalho was able to explain each one of his choices, and why the players he chose needed to be where they were.

Prabhjot Singh was Carvalho’s trump card. So was goalkeeper Baljit Singh, who was preferred over seniors such as Adrian D’Souza and Bharat Chetri. By the end of the year, Prabhjot Singh grew in stature to be among the best 18 in the world.

A bronze medal in the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament — it could easily have been silver — at Ipoh in May gave rise to hopes of Indian hockey’s resurgence. Another bronze medal-winning performance in the Champions Challenge in Boom, Belgium, again raised doubts whether the team could muster something more (raised fresh hopes as people began to believe that the Indian team was capable of achieving a lot more).

India’s performance in Boom was inconsistent. The much-touted return of Sandeep Singh failed to live up to expectations, which disappointed Carvalho. The back-to-back wins against England, though, showed that India was capable of taking on European teams with equanimity.

Clearly, the golden phase of Indian hockey was the gold medal at the Asia Cup in Chennai. The defending champion’s triumph generated a wave of euphoria though some considered it to be exaggerated. India’s sequence of victories and its aggregate goals put the team ahead of the others in the competition. India’s best effort was its 7-2 victory over South Korea in the final in front of a huge crowd, with thousands more waiting outside, listening to the cheers. The performances of Prabhjot, Rajpal Singh, Sardara Singh, mid-fielders Prabhodh Tirkey (captain), Ignatius Tirkey and Bimal Lakra won appreciation all round.

Remarkable, however, was the recognition that came to the Indian team in the wake of its triumph, even though after a volley of protest.

The bonanza announced for the Indian cricketers, who won the inaugural World Twenty20 Championship in South Africa, rightly peeved the hockey stars. Carvalho made no bones about the ‘step-motherly treatment’ meted out to his players.

Thereafter, prizes and awards were announced for the hockey players too, with the best coming from the State Bank of India, which gave Rs. 5 lakh to each member of the winning team.

Another good news came India’s way as the International Hockey Federation (FIH) awarded it the services of the famous coach, Ric Charlesworth, under the special projects scheme, supported by the Sports Authority of India. The credentials and fame of the tough-talking Aussie are legendary.

Across the globe hockey flourished with the Olympic qualifiers cornering unusual attention. At the Pan-American Games in Rio, Canada caused a sensation by making the grade at the expense of Argentina, the favourite, in the tie-breaker. Australia ensured its berth in the qualifiers in Brisbane, while the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium secured their places at the European Championships in Manchester.

The biggest shock, however, was the failure of Germany, the world champion, to secure an automatic berth for the Beijing Olympics, while Belgium surprisingly went through. South Africa won the African qualifiers.

In what could be termed as the most dramatic moment of 2007 was the triumph of Argentina in the Champions Challenge in Boom. Till five minutes from time, New Zealand appeared set for victory when a 37-year-old Argentinian, answering to the name Jorge Lombi, performed a superlative hat-trick to pull off a stunning victory for his team. As far as individual performances were concerned, this was the piece-de-resistance of the year.

The showpiece event of the year, the Champions Trophy, became a subject of debate and controversy. Scheduled to be held in Lahore, Pakistan, in December, the venue posed an unexplained security concern for teams such as Australia and South Korea. When the FIH sensed that many more teams would follow suit, it began to look for an alternative venue. Both India, which had successfully staged the Asia Cup, and Malaysia, eager to get back into the Olympics mode, offered to host the tournament and the latter won the bid.

Thus Kuala Lumpur became the venue, forcing the FIH to accommodate two more teams than the normal six in the fray. Great Britain and Malaysia thus gained their places in the tournament.

It was in Kuala Lumpur that Germany revealed its master plan for the future — the team bagged the trophy for a record ninth time. Besides Germany’s magnificent showing, what was remarkable was South Korea’s 6-2 victory over defending champion the Netherlands.

Jamie Dwyer of Australia and Luciana Aymar of Argentina were declared the ‘best players of the year’ among men and women respectively.

The FIH, under the dynamic leadership of Els van Breda Vriesman, fine tuned its operations and systematised its functioning in Lausanne. Significantly, the FIH Board met in New Delhi in November to allot the 2010 World Cup, in principle, to Delhi, which is also hosting the Commonwealth Games that year.

There is some truth in the argument that women’s hockey does not get as much media support as men’s hockey. Though several countries like Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, China and Japan have progressed well in the year not much attention was paid either to the teams or to the personalities. It is a flaw that requires to be addressed in the proper forum with full support from the FIH.

At the end of it all, what 2007 proved was that hockey continues to glow, and grow with striking vibrancy.