China takes the spotlight

The Chinese women are jubilant after beating Japan in the final.-AP

India's fifth place was pathetic. Small wonder, the defeat against China is viewed as a national disaster. For just a quarter of an hour the team was wayward against China and paid a heavy price for that, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Enter the Dragon! For any headline writer this could be the tempting punch line to portray the sensational performance of China in the men's hockey competition in Doha. Never in the medal bracket since its entry in 1982, China scripted a glittering chapter in the 15th Asian Games, decimating the image of the sub-continental powers — Pakistan and India.

While the back-to-back gold for China's women was predictable, it was the men who spelt consternation all round with their incredible show. The 3-2 subjugation of India in a pool tie was followed by a stunning 2-1 semi-final victory over Pakistan, before capitulating to the ultimate winner, South Korea.

How did this sudden transformation happen, one may ask. The players were the same, but the change in approach was breathtaking. Credit for this must go to the Korean coach, Kim Sang-Ryul. In a space of one year, he has put together a medal winning combination, with the target set for a bronze at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Whether Kim will realise this dream is premature for a debate. But China is now an established power in the continent in the same way as its women. The style and system have a Korean imprint: strong fundamentals, neat trapping, eye-catching velocity, ingenuous penalty corner conversions and fortitude when the chips are down.

In Yi Song, China has a tireless worker. Always on the ball, this nippy attacker was all over, giving the frontliners, Yubo Na, and Liu Xianting enough space to move. China's another area of strength was in goalkeeping where Su Rifeng was excellent.

With their place assured in the home Olympics, the Chinese men have arrived. And more will be heard of them. As the highest ranked team in Asia — it was a semi-finalist at the last World Cup — South Korea had a trump card in Jang Jong Hyun. Superb is the word for the way he hit the penalty corners. Small wonder, he emerged the top scorer with 15 goals. He overshadowed everyone, until the final where he had to go empty handed. Korea won 3-1 in a well-fought match, the experience of Yew Woon Koon coming in handy.

Barring a draw against India in the Pool game, the Koreans never lost their focus. A defeat in that match would have given India a semi-final berth.

The eclipse of the sub-continent was real. Pakistan was lucky to enter the semi-finals after surviving anxious moments and coming up equal from a last minute goal by Zubair against Malaysia in the opening match. The goalless draw against Japan for a semi-final spot evoked a howl of protest from the Malaysians. They were convinced that the result was pre-determined and the coach Wallace Tan went public with a statement.

Japan was no doubt workmanlike but its players, notably veteran Yamabori, was always in the thick of action, scoring a few lovely goals.

The stunning reverse against China, which got the equaliser (Yu Yang) seconds before the regulation time and then followed it up with a golden goal (Li Fenghui), showed Pakistan's weakness. Eventually, Pakistan earned a bronze and a place in the 2008 Olympics.

But the team hardly found its rhythm, suffering from want of a tenacious mid-field. Rehan Butt and Shakeel Abbasi provided some thrust, but that was not enough to proclaim Pakistan as a gold medal prospect.

India's fifth place was pathetic. Small wonder, the defeat against China is viewed as a national disaster. For just a quarter of an hour the team was wayward against China, and paid a heavy price for that. The team failed to make it to the podium for the first time since 1958 when hockey came on board. Assessed individually, the players have the potential, but they failed collectively. The only silver lining was the blossoming of a new drag flicker, Raghunath, who finished the tournament with a tally of 10 goals out of the 34 scored by India. At 18, he has years ahead of him. How he shapes up for tougher battles needs to be monitored.

Absence of a proficient pivot left the mid-field vulnerable. Ignace Tirkey, however, strove to fill the gap. The frontline was inconsistent despite Rajpal and Tejbir being more prominent.

In contrast, the Indian women performed with credit to win the bronze medal. They displayed admirable fighting qualities in tight situations and scored well enough to stay on course for a podium finish.

Jyothi Kullu and Surinder Kaur (top scorer with eight goals), with occasional flashes of brilliance by Saba Anjum and Mamta Khar, dominated the attack. Mid-fielder Asuntha Lakra and defender Subadhra Pradhan, were conspicuous.

Goalkeeper Deepika should be singled out for the way she met the challenge in the medal match against Korea.

Japan was tipped to take the gold consequent to its excellent show in the World Cup in Madrid. In fact, when it beat China 3-0 in the pool match, the forecast looked appropriate. But China was in a different league in the final. The lone goal by Ye Ren tilted the scales. Fu Barong was another dominant attacker for China. Expectedly, both Chiba (12 goals in the tournament) and Komori (7 goals) were among the goals for Japan, but in the crucial final they were bottled up well.

Korea, a winner of four gold medals, went out without any medal this time. That was sad indeed for a powerhouse.

The final placings

Men: 1. South Korea, 2. China, 3. Pakistan, 4. Japan, 5. India, 6. Malaysia, 7. Bangladesh, 8. Chinese Taipei, 9. Hong Kong, 10. Oman.

Women: 1. China, 2. Japan, 3. India, 4. Korea, 5. Malaysia, 6. Chinese Taipei, 7. Hong Kong.