Bound for Bundesliga

Deepak Thakur and Viren Rasquinha (below) … hoping to add value to the Stuttgart Kickers in the German league.-RAJEEV BHATT Deepak Thakur and Viren Rasquinha (below) … hoping to add value to the Stuttgart Kickers in the German league.

For quite some time now, Indian hockey players have charmed the European leagues with their skills. Viren Rasquinha, V. S. Vinay and Deepak Thakur are the latest signings who hope to enthral the German League, writes Nandakumar Marar.

Deepak Thakur and Viren Rasquinha (below) …

The Stuttgart Kickers have been drawing from the Indian men’s hockey talent pool since the 1992 Olympic Games. Jagbir Singh was the first to take the plunge into the German hockey league at a time when the European nation was celebrating its triumph in the Barcelona Olympics (Germany defeated Australia 2-1 in the men’s hockey final). Jagbir continued as a pro with the Kickers till 1997.

Striker Dhanraj Pillay joined the Stuttgart Kickers in 2000 and created ripples with his speed and stick-work. Now, it’s the turn of international midfielder Viren Rasquinha to wear the Kickers’ colours. And joining him later will be striker Deepak Thakur and midfielder V. S. Vinay, both internationals.

Jagbir’s stint, which stretched from 1992 to 1997, is the longest by an Indian. The sardar helped raise the profile of Indian hockey and astounded the Germans with his dribbling skills and the ability to deflect crosses past the goalkeeper into the cage.

The Kickers sought Jagbir’s help to sign new players, and on his recommendation signed up Dhanraj Pillay in 2000 and Viren Rasquinha this year.

According to Jagbir, Dilip Tirkey was short-listed by the Kickers in the past, but the world-class defender didn’t make it since he could not confirm a long-term commitment to the club owing to the indeterminate international schedule of the Indian team.

Rasquinha, utilising Indian hockey’s off-season, has signed a two-month contract with the Kickers.

Hockey in Germany is on a high, especially after the national team won back-to-back World Cups — Kuala Lumpur in 2002 and Monchengladbach in 2006. Germany is now number one in men’s world rankings.

Jagbir is clear about the reasons behind the Bundesliga clubs’ interest in Indian players. “The German clubs like Stuttgart Kickers signed me or Dhanraj so that their own players could learn by training with us and playing with us in matches. They also felt we could be of use to their junior players, so I spent a lot of time at Stuttgart conducting clinics for kids, showing them how we do the dodge, among other skills,” the former India player said.

“National team players from other countries are highly valued in Germany, since they feel a player can win national colours only after mastering the skills of the game. The German clubs want the big names on their team list in order to attract fans to club matches,” he said.

Compared with ace strikers such as Jagbir and Dhanraj, who are blessed with the feel for space and nose for goals, Rasquinha is adept at defensive duties in the midfield. “The German league experience will change him into an attacking midfielder in the Brent Livermore mould,” asserted Jagbir.

“The Bundesliga clubs want goals from foreign recruits, so I am sure the Stuttgart Kickers’ coach will have worked out by now how to bring out the attacking instincts in Rasquinha. The German coaches will study you first and then pick out your best qualities that would be of use to the side. The Indian players going there should make use of the opportunity and facilities, adjust to the situations there and enjoy the experience.”

The club coaches in Germany, according to Jagbir, prefer team players in the side. The freedom to use individual skill is allowed only if it helps the other players in the side. “I remember my early days with Stuttgart. In a friendly tournament in Austria, I dribbled a lot around defenders like the way the Indian forwards do. The coach, with his limited knowledge of English, conveyed to me what he expected of me. He said bluntly, ‘Jaggi, give and go…. goal.’ He wanted me to release the ball quickly and head for space in the goalmouth for the return pass, then score goals,” revealed Jagbir.

Setting high standards... Dhanraj Pillay and Jagbir Singh (below).-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Setting high standards...

He said the Bundesliga taught him how to play ‘Eurasian’ hockey. He explained: “I learnt to use my individual skill and became a team player at the same time. My first season in the German league taught me how an Asian could fit into European hockey.”

Dhanraj, the second Indian to play in the Bundesliga, talked about the uniform approach of German hockey. He also talked of the tendency of the club coaches to adopt concepts and formations followed by the national team. “I noticed that Stuttgart teams were playing the way Lissek (German Olympic team coach Paul Lissek) would want to play. The pattern at the national and club level was almost the same, 10-20 per cent variation seen from club to club,” said Dhanraj.

The Indian striker-turned-playmaker took some time to forge an understanding with his team-mates at the Kickers. “When I ran with the ball, other players found it tough to keep pace with me initially, so a couple of younger, faster forwards from the youth team joined us. From then on, the attack improved,” said Dhanraj.

According to him, the coach gave more importance to teamwork than individual performances. “The dribble and dodge was reserved for the 25-yard line, till then all of us were told to release the ball and get into attacking positions. Video watching was part of match preparation. I remember our club coach showing us footage of rival teams and players, singling out rival defenders likely to mark me in the next game,” Dhanraj explained.

Like Jagbir, Dhanraj too gained insight into German hockey’s fitness standards. “I was put through fitness tests the day after landing in Stuttgart. I expected the trainers to test me on the ground after being asked to warm up, instead we headed for the gym where machines tested the strength in my knees, back, hamstring, hip and shoulder joints, elbow and wrists,” Dhanraj revealed.

“The strength in my back was equivalent to a 16-17-year-old German playing league hockey then. I was 32 at that time.”

Rasquinha is aware of the standards that Dhanraj and Jagbir have set for players coming out of the Indian hockey setup. “I’ve played a lot with Dhanraj, for India and in the Premier Hockey League. He is an exceptional player who can change the course of a match in an instant. A tremendous leader on the pitch and a team-man to the core, he is one of my heroes,” he said.

“I grew up watching Jagbir and remember the diving goals he netted for India. I rate him as one of the best coaches I have ever played under. He is up to date with modern hockey, reads the game well and has brilliant communication skills,” Rasquinha said.

Rasquinha is of the view that Indian internationals can add value to foreign clubs with more such offers coming from European hockey. Dilip Tirkey and Gagan Ajit Singh are regular players in the Dutch league, while Vinay played in the Spanish league before moving to the Bundesliga.

“The Stuttgart Kickers have lost a couple of experienced players this year, notably Bjorn Emmerling. They were German champions in 2005, but didn’t do too well last year. They want to make the playoffs this year and are looking for some experienced hands.

“I guess that is where I come in,” explained Rasquinha. “Foreign clubs are now realising that Indians have a lot to offer and are very talented. It’s just a matter of channelling the talent well. We can definitely help the European clubs to add a new dimension to an otherwise predictable league,” he added.

German hockey wants to get richer, in form and following. Jagbir and Dhanraj were drafted for their crowd-pulling ability. The Stuttgart players and fans will get a close look at three more Indians now, as the learning process continues with Rasquinha, Deepak Thakur and Vinay in the spotlight.