Kuala Lumpur beckons

S. THYAGARAJAN

VISUALISED as the vehicle to enhance the enchanting ethos of competitive hockey, the ebb and flow of the World Cup, since its launch in 1971, envelops an enthusiast in a melange of emotions. As the 10th edition is set to roll at Kuala Lumpur on February 24, it is difficult to resist the mood of nostalgia into the momentous moments and marvel at the vicissitudes that form a fascinating saga of the growth of hockey in more ways than one.

A competition born out of compulsion, owing to the misgivings of hockey continuing as a discipline in the Olympics in the late 60s, the World Cup not only strengthened the fibres of administration and scientific coaching, it also engendered a vibrant dynamics and sophistication to establish hockey as a mass spectator sport. The dimensions increased as more and more means and methods were devised to create a vast mosaic of skills, styles, systems and strategies. The labours of the visionaries - which include the foresight and fortitude of administrators, such as Rene Frank and Etienne Glichitch - was carried forward gallantly by a set of men and women such as Juan Angel Calzado and the current President, Els van Breda Vriesman, not to speak of the extraordinarily accomplished coaches, contemporary hockey has thus acquired all the ingredients that give it the image and identity of a major global sport.

At this point, it is irrelevant to debate as to who - India or Pakistan - conceptualised the idea of a World competition. Suffice it to say that Pakistan, with the enterprising Ali Iqtadir Shah, affectionately known as Dara, working overtime, succeeded in convincing the authorities back home and made available an exquisitely carved cup, the symbol of world hockey supremacy. Designed by Bashir Moojid and shaped by the skilled artisans of the Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the silver and gold World Cup, mounted on a 120.85 mm base, was presented to the International Hockey Federation on March 27, 1971 at Brussels. The cup contains 895 grams of gold, 6815 gms of silver, 350 gms of ivory, 3500 gms of teakwood and weighs 11,560 gms.

If Pakistan had nursed the dream of providing the stage for the inaugural World Cup in 1971, it disintegrated when a political storm swept across the country. The FIH was then left with no alternative but to shift the venue out of Lahore. When fear arose over the championship getting enmeshed in a web of problems, Spain stepped in to host the first edition at Barcelona. The 10-nation event pioneered a World-level competition from all the continents. India had the unique distinction of winning all the four matches in the five-team pool, while Pakistan, which eventually won the trophy, lost to Spain 2-3, drew with Holland 2-2 to be second in Pool 'B'. But Pakistan beat India 2-1, while Spain beat Kenya in the semi-finals. Khalid Mehmood, as skipper, made the first edition memorable for Pakistan.

Buoyed by the success of the inaugural World Cup, the FIH wanted the event to go on stage every two years. Till 1975 the system worked well notwithstanding the loose selection of teams and the escalation of financial inputs. The next edition was held only after three years, in 1978, after which the four-year system became the norm. Holland's remarkable win at Amstelveen in 1973 against India in the tie-breaker stoked the embers of growth in Europe. The era saw the birth of the Dutch stalwarts, Thies Kruize and Paul Litjens, whose proficiency in executing penalty corners almost changed the character of hockey. Thies Kruize is a legendary figure now, having earned six World Cup caps for the Netherlands. India missed the trophy by a whisker after beating Pakistan, when Govinda had flunked a penalty stroke in the final. Govinda struck the lone goal against Pakistan in the semi-final.

After the bronze in Barcelona and the silver in Amsterdam, the golden day for India dawned at Kuala Lumpur in 1975. The trophy triumph came amidst a welter of confusion, what with the national team playing under the IOA banner, consequent to the fissure in the IHF administration. Led by that superbly accomplished centre-half, Ajitpal Singh, India conquered the mighty Pakistanis in a pulsating final that, of course, generated its quota of controversies, which included a disputed match-winning goal by Ashok Kumar, awarded by umpire Vijaynathan, who later became a member of the Hockey Rules Board. Alain Renaud was the other umpire for the final.

A dozen nations figured in the 1975 World Cup, but India and Pakistan led the table. India drew with Australia 1-1, and lost to Argentina 1-2, but managed to stay on course. Pakistan drew with Poland 2-2, and Holland 3-3 to finish with eight against India's seven points. While Pakistan smashed Germany 5-1 in the semi-finals, India surged ahead of Malaysia by an extra-time goal to win 3-2.

The euphoria generated by the triumph lasted almost three years till the Indian team crashed to the sixth place in the fourth World Cup at Buenos Aires. Between Kuala Lumpur and Buenos Aires, the hockey world witnessed a tremendous transformation: natural grass giving way to synthetic surface. Though introduced in the Montreal Olympics in 1976, the first World Cup on astro-turf was held only in 1986 when England hosted the sixth edition. The intervening period also saw the birth of the prestigious Champions Trophy in 1977. By the time the 70s ended, hockey was going through a golden phase with Pakistan, featuring a set of wonderfully gifted players such as Ishlahudin, Shahnaz, Samiullah and Akhtar Rasool, not only regaining the World Cup, beating Holland 3-2 in a fantastic final, but also holding sway in the Champions Trophy. This was the era when Pakistan sailed on a golden wave thanks to the efficiency infused in the administration by Air Marshal Nur Khan.

Even as the new decade was about to blossom, a measure of structuring came into the conduct of the World Cup. At least, the periodicity was determined. Not long after, a qualifying event came into place. In the four-year period between Buenos Aires and Bombay (now Mumbai) the power equations changed. The trauma of the Olympic boycott in 1980 in Moscow no doubt had a debilitating effect. But the World Cup in 1982 brought everyone back into the fold.

The expectations of the Indian spectators were belied when the home team failed to pick up a point against the Aussies (2-1) and missed the semi-final berth. Imagine, this after scoring 21 goals in five matches, Rajinder Singh contributing eight and eventually ending up with 12. Skippered by the enormously proficient Akhtar Rasool, Pakistan, with a substantial number of youth talent blossoming, won the trophy for the third time in five World Cups. If Mumbai underlined the strength and power of the Aussies under the genius of Ric Charlesworth, it also launched the brilliant career of Hassan Sardar, inarguably among the best forwards in the history of hockey.

Australia's surge into an effulgent phase was the next highlight. At Willesden in 1986, and in front of a marvellous audience, the Charlie's Angels, as the Aussie team came to be referred to, captured the Cup beating England 2-1. It was an emotional moment for coach, Richard Aggiss and to everyone in the team, notably Terry Walsh, Colin Batch, Craig Davies and Treva King, who worked tirelessly to realise that golden dream. Interestingly, the home team led by Richard Dodds, made it to the final with a remarkable sequence of victories. Memorable were the performances of Sean Kerly, later to develop as the hero of the Olympics in 1988 at Seoul, and Imran Sherwani, a Pakistani settled in England, as the outside left. If Australia and England touched the pinnacle, for Pakistan, the defending champion, and India, the event was an unmitigated disaster. Depressed and dispirited after the Asian Games preceding the World Cup, neither had the strength and stamina to go through the whole hog. India hit the bottom losing to Pakistan 2-3.

Lahore, eventually, earned the right to host the World Cup which it should have inaugurated. The 1990 edition was an outstanding success, what with 60,000 spectators cramming the National Stadium on the final day, waiting to savour the moment of success. But this was spoiled by Floris Bovelander (2) and Gijs Weterings spoiled. Those were the heyday of the Pakistani icon, Shabhaz Ahmed, supported by Tariq Imran, Waseem Feroze, and the great goal-keeper Manzoor. While Australia swept the board in Pool 'A' taking five out of five, the Pakistanis slipped, sharing points with England (1-1) and losing to Germany (0-1). The Aussies were subdued by a penalty corner hit by Khalid Bashir in the 2-1 verdict and Pakistan made it to the final, while Bovelander(2) and Marc Delissen ensured the demolition of Germany in extra-time.

A 10th place mirrored India's pathetic performance. A victim of the harassment by the Kashmiri jihadi groups, the Indians were psychologically defeated from day one. The team under Pargat Singh made a valiant attempt to get over the tirade but failed. The manner in which the players strove to get into rhythm in the palpably hostile atmosphere earned the plaudits all-round. The FIH had no hesitation in awarding the Fair Play Trophy to India for the gallant way in which the team stood its ground and continued the match against Holland even while the crowd showered abuse and missiles on the players.

The World Cup sailed Down Under in 1994 to that brilliant sporting city of Sydney. The Aussies were the clear favourites in home conditions, but the end paned out to be different. Pakistan turned the tables this time on the Dutch, despite a defeat against England in the league phase. The hero was not Shahbaz, Tariq or Kamran, but goalkeeper. Mansoor Ahmed, who stood between the Dutch and victory in the tie-breaker. One goal each at regulation time, the Pakistanis won 4-3 amidst tumultuous scenes. Interestingly, the wily Dutch coach, Hans Jorritsma, who guided his team against Pakistan at Lahore was on the side of the latter at Sydney. A fourth trophy triumph in five finals confirmed Pakistan's stature as a supreme hockey power. India, under the new coach, Cedric D'Souza, and with Jude Felix as captain, improved its rating to five and earned a place in the elite group for the Champions Trophy of 1996 in Berlin.

Utrecht, the picturesque Dutch city, organised the next extravaganza, combining both the men's and women's competitions. And the enthusiasts of the country, where hockey enjoys an envious patronage and reputation could not have asked for more as the home team triumphed, and that too in such a dramatic fashion. The match-winner was a golden goal by Teun De Nooijer against Spain, which performed beyond expectations. Veteran Jacques Brinkmann and striker Stephan Veen, who led the side, were also notable for the Dutch. Outstanding for Spain was Ramon Jeffrosa, the goalkeeper, while Juan Escarre and Javier Arnau were masters in the frontline.

The manner in which the Aussies, led by that striker Jay Stacy, demolished the opposition, tempted one to put them as the favourite, but the Dutch thrashed the team 6-2 in the semi-final, while Germany, still chasing the World Cup, went down to Spain 0-3. India, led by Dhanraj Pillay, had another spell of bad luck losing initially to Germany and Holland and slipping out of the reckoning in a poorly supervised contest against South Korea. The ninth place was not a true index of the potential of the team.

As one more script waits to be crafted at Kuala Lumpur, no one will venture to prophesy the winner from the 16 taking part. In fact, 16 teams are participating for the first time in the World Cup.

For the Asians, the fact that five nations - South Korea, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Japan - are taking part is in itself a matter for some satisfaction. If there is a hockey fiesta, it is this, it is this, at the Malaysian capital.