Germany takes the honours

Published : Sep 01, 2001 00:00 IST


THE Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is fast growing into a tournament of repute, second only to the Champions Trophy as an invitational meet.

This year, there was added significance that six of the seven teams taking part had all won the tournament and they are all ranked in the top even in the world. Only the World and Olympic champion Holland was missing from the stellar cast.

Thus the tournament, seen as a sneak preview of the 2002 World Cup, lived up to its tag as a big meet and gave more than a slight insight to the teams' preparations. Only host Malaysia was the outsider with no tournament wins under its belt.

South Korea is effectively the number two in the world after its silver medal winning effort at the Sydney Olympics last year. Australia was third, followed by Pakistan fourth and England and Germany fifth and sixth positions. India was placed seventh while the Malaysians finished in the 11th place at Sydney.

The objective for all the teams, including India, which sent a team of relatively young players, was to learn and find out the conditions of the World Cup venue. And the humid conditions clearly was a worrying factor for them.

The overall standard, displayed by the teams, was high and number of matches were decided by some last minute goals.

Even when the teams won by high margins, the matches were in fact close. One thing that stands out is that the teams can only get better from here. And it should not surprise anyone that the five teams going to the Champions Trophy have the capacity to win the title.

Those teams are Pakistan, Germany, Korea, Australia and England. They will be joined by Holland in November in Lahore. India and Malaysia will be playing in the inaugural Champions Challenge in December in New Delhi. The other teams in the tournament are Argentina, Spain, Canada and Poland while South Africa and Japan have been invited to join them although these two teams did not play in Sydney.

Germany, current European champion, and former Olympic gold medallist was a revelation in the tournament and will be a major force in the World Cup. It won the title without dropping a match and scored a total of 28 goals. It was in devastating form and its final win over South Korea was a magnificent show of power and discipline, which has always been the hallmark of German teams. It has several players who will become household names by the time the World Cup is on.

Towering skipper, Florian Kunz, named Player of the Tournament, is a fine example of a leader, who inspires his players from the sweeper's position. His long stride allows him to get ahead of his opponents, but the most effective weapon is his long hits which can turn a defensive move to an attacking one. His penalty corner flick is also powerful and he scored from such a situation in the final to equalise for Germany when the Koreans led 2-1.

The Koreans play a similar game to the Germans and were just as effective. They lost to a more tactical team and not on any other aspect. The Koreans will be a threat to any team and they will get better with time.

As their coach Jeon Jae-Hong said: "There is no point learning to play like the others, if you do not do some work yourself. We know the German style but we also want to incorporate some of our own ideas. So in that sense we are trying to develop our style as well."

The team is super fit and is already showing signs of improving in the tactical play. It is now able to vary its game and play according to its opponents. Previously the Koreans were more predictable.

The final was also a fine example of why teams should not give up until the final hooter has gone. The Germans won the title with just 45 second left on the clock.

India is another team which will vouch for this. It lost to Australia with just seconds to go.

Germany coach Bernhard Peters had this to say about the tournament. "If the objective here is to learn then I think all the teams would have benefited. We realise that although the title is ours the other teams showed good play and will be better in six months time. So there can be no let up in training for the big teams as they have to work hard to stay ahead."

For the defending champion, Pakistan, the tournament cannot be said as a failure. It finished in fourth place but there are signs that its youngsters are slowly finding the rhythm of old. The team was back-to-back winner in 1999 and 2000.

Australia beat Pakistan again for third place just like it did in Sydney. But the Pakistanis showed their flair in their moves as shown by the attacking duo of Atif Bashir and Mohamed Nadeem. The team's penalty corner specialist Sohail Abbas is as dependable as ever, winning the top-scorer award with 10 goals.

The Pakistanis have speed and they counter attack very well. But they need to get fitter and also perform consistently during the duration of the match. This is the area they lost out.

The Aussies are rebuilding their side with Barry Dancer calling the shots. They displayed good attacking strategy and one can see that they will be handful when they have perfected their moves.

They have good material in Brent Livermore, Troy Elder, Matthew Smith, Adam Commens and Daniel Sproule. Gone are the days of Jay Stacy, Stephen Davies and Michael York. It is clear that Dancer is ready to mould his own team rather than build on that of Terry Walsh's.

Australia and Pakistan are clearly on the march again. Make no mistake about them.

The fifth placing at the Sultan Azlan Shah hockey tournament may have been a disappointment for many hockey fans in India, but realistically while other teams used the Azlan Shah as a stepping-stone to the 2002 World Cup, the Indians used it to prepare their junior team for the 2001 Junior World Cup in Hobart, Australia. Eight of the 18-member team will play in the junior World Cup.

Going strictly by the performance in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had some good moments and a little effort and vision would have taken them to a higher placing than the fifth they got.

A 2-2 opening match draw with host Malaysia could have gone either way. But to lose against Pakistan and Australia was pathetic. India would have done well to draw against them. Against Pakistan, it was battling on equal terms at 3-3 when an error in the defence saw it give away a penalty corner to Pakistan and it lost 4-3.

Against Australia, it had a good game, was on equal terms at 2-2, heading for a respectable draw before the defence again wilted under pressure and gave away a penalty corner in the last five seconds. Australia won 3-2.

Blooding the youngsters was the best thing that India could have done.

Playing with a seasoned campaigner like Dilip Tirkey, juniors Bikramjit Singh and Jugraj Singh would have learnt valuable lessons.

Indian chief coach Cedric D' Souza said: "The find of the tournament for India was Ignace Tirkey. We were looking for a left-half and I think we have found one in him. Technically, he still has to improve but that would come with time."

In terms of consistency, Dilip Tirkey was still India's best. Flying in straight from Edinburgh where India played a energy sapping World Cup qualifying tournament, Tirkey played every match here and was not substituted in any match: This speaks a lot about Tirkey's tremendous fitness.

If fitness was the key, then a couple of players definitely lacked it too. The recall of forward Sabu Varkey didn't exactly set the tournament on fire. Sabu had a hard time falling back but looking at the positive side, he has six months to whip himself back into shape. Mukesh Kumar may have scored only one goal in the tournament, but he played hard and especially against Pakistan, like always, had a great game.

Overall, India definitely looks like having the nucleus of a team that could go a long way and definitely seems set to return to a place in the top four.

Malaysia and England need to really wake up from their slumber if they are to challenge the big teams. Their fitness level were suspect and their attacks were rarely a threat. Malaysia scored eight goals while the English scored six from seven outings. A pathetic goal-scoring rate.

Malaysian coach Paul Lissek, the former German master coach, was clearly miffed at his players' lack of composure when under pressure.

In today's game you need to be cool and always be on the alert for the whole 70 minutes. Seconds can be crucial and just look at the number of games that are won at the last minute.

"If we want to challenge the best then we not only need to play like them but also think and be disciplined like them. You cannot win matches if you do not score. And you cannot win if you let in goals either," Paul Lissek said.

So one can only conclude that this year's tournament has been well worth the time for the invited teams. They have learnt and only time will tell if they have made use of that knowledge.

Organisation-wise, the Malaysian Hockey Federation (MHF) did a good job, but the absence of a media officer was a sore point for the media covering the event.

With more than 250 journalists expected for the World Cup, the MHF should sort out this problem.

And if the MHF wants the tournament to be on a par with the Champions Trophy then it needs to look into all these aspects. Not just having the big teams, to pull the crowd.

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