Magnificent Europe

There was remarkable vibrancy across the globe with 2012 being the Olympic Year. Everything was debated and dissected against the background of the London Olympics that clearly stamped the power equations, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Rolling on in the mind’s eye, the events from competitive hockey that captured our imagination in the year that sailed into the recess of history provide a fascinating insight and envelop the aficionados in an emotional melange.

Predictably, there was remarkable vibrancy across the globe with 2012 being the Olympic Year. Everything was debated and dissected, particularly from the standpoint of top teams against the background of the London Olympics that clearly stamped the power equations.

Purely from an Indian perspective, the year panned out to be a mixture of emotions. With the domestic convulsions and contradictions, not to speak of the mounting complexities in the administration lurking in the background, India’s first hurdle was to qualify for the Olympics.

The mood of despair and revulsion after failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics continued to haunt everyone even as the team was getting ready for the qualifiers at home. Not everything was hunky-dory at that point with the FIH (International Hockey Federation) cancelling the scheduled Champions Trophy. There was a prevailing fear that even the qualifiers would be taken out of the Dhyan Chand Stadium, but it only turned out to be an illusion.

Watched by its supporters, who turned up in large numbers, India defeated France in the final. The gangling Sandeep Singh was India’s hero and the margin of victory (8-1) lifted the fans to the peak of delight.

Nothing was left to chance in the preparation for the London Olympics, which included a four-nation tournament on the blue turf at the Olympic venue against Australia, Germany and Great Britain. India took the flop show — it finished last in the competition — in its stride as part of a learning experience.

The bronze medal in Ipoh after beating Great Britain definitely proved a booster for India, which had also posted victories against South Korea and Pakistan. The Test series against France and Spain also contributed to enhancing the experience of the team and set the mood before the Olympics.

What occurred in London is a story that needs to be told with a tinge of anguish and anger. A brilliant start against the Netherlands (2-3) raised hopes of a strong showing by India. But alas, that did not happen. The team tumbled to one defeat after another and finished last in its pool. Eventually, India, for the first time in the Olympics, ended at the bottom of the rankings (12th).

Neither the coach nor the team members were able to offer a convincing explanation for the slide. The hockey community across the world was stupefied by India’s display, as were the large number of followers at home. As always, various theories were floated as reasons for India’s reverses; some even blamed the coach and the trainer for over-exposing the players to competitions in the run-up to the Olympics. However, the fact was that the team did not click as a unit.

Down in the dumps, Michael Nobbs and his support staff had to rebuild the team carefully by weeding out the non-performing or the under performing ‘stars’.

Goalkeeper and captain Chetri, Ignace Tirkey, Gurbaj, Shivendra, Tushar Khandekar and the hero of the qualifiers, Sandeep Singh, were sacrificed and young blood injected. It was a gamble before the Champions Trophy, but it proved a worthy one. In the tournament in Melbourne, India missed the bronze medal by a whisker, losing to Pakistan to finish fourth. Though it was heart-warming to see the manner in which young players such as Nithin Thimmiah, Kothajit Singh, Uthappa and Yuvaraj Walmiki shaped up in the company of the outstanding mid-fielder, Sardar Singh, the new captain, and the experienced bunch of Raghunath, Birendra Lakra and Gurvinder Singh Chandi, the Indian team lacked the level of consistency needed to make a mark at this level.

In all the rumblings that followed Indian hockey like a shadow, the one man who synthesised the virtues of class, calibre and consistency to be in focus in every competition was Sardar Singh. Small wonder that he was among the nominees for the Player of the Year award, which, eventually, went to Moritz Fuerste of Germany.

Hockey in 2012 once again mirrored the magnificence and dominance of Europe, as Germany and the Netherlands clashed in the Olympic final. The Aussies, despite the genius of Jamie Dwyer, and the guiding ‘guru’ Ric Charlesworth had to settle for the bronze. Australia, however, won the Champions Trophy for the fifth time in a row in Melbourne.

The emergence of Belgium as a strong power was proved beyond doubt in the Champions Trophy and also in the Champions Challenge in Randburg (South Africa) where it piped India literally in the last minute.

In Asia, there was no alteration in the power structure with Pakistan, South Korea, India and Malaysia calling the shots.

The process of rebuilding the national squads began soon after the Olympics. Stalwarts like Teun de Nooijer, Roderick Weusthof, Floris Evers (the Netherlands) called it quits, as did a handful of players — Timo Wess, Jan Marco Montag, Philip Zeller, Matthias Witthaus — from the gold medal-winning German team, paving the way for youth.

On the distaff side, the Dutch continued their hold, winning the Olympic gold by defeating Argentina, which had won the Champions Trophy in Rosario. For all the hopes raised by Great Britain, it had to end the Games at home with a bronze medal, while its men flopped in the semifinals, suffering a 2-9 reverse against the Netherlands.

The Indian women, thanks to the consistent showing of Ritu Rani, warmed many a heart in the qualifiers where they lost to South Africa in the final. Certain structural changes were effected to give the FIH administration a new look. The FIH Congress in Kuala Lumpur re-elected Leandro Negre as the President for another term. The launch of the World Hockey League (WHL) and the norms framed for qualifying for the 2014 World Cup have been altered. The WHL has been given the primacy in picking the final 12 for the 2014 World Cup in The Hague.

Quite a few experiments were attempted, the significant one being ‘the self-goal.’

As another New Year dawns, the hockey community prepares to face a brave new world. The excitement, it seems, never ceases to fade.