Of colour and substance

From Barcelona in 1971 to Monchengladbach in 2006, the hockey World Cup is replete with interesting vignettes that lend the sport an enchanting vibrancy, writes S. Thyagarajan.

October 15, 1971. This is the date to remember in hockey. When the ball waltzed on the thick grass of the Real Polo Ground that Friday afternoon in Barcelona, the moment crystallised the hopes and aspirations of the hockey fraternity in establishing the official World Championship. The focus here is not on who — India or Pakistan — floated the idea, but on the history and sequence that fashioned the first edition of the championship.

Haunted by fears of losing the Olympic status in the mid-1960s, the FIH (International Hockey Federation) was desperate to start a competition to retain its identity.

1990 World Cup... it’s a full house as Holland players celebrate after taking a 2-0 lead against Pakistan in the final in Lahore.-PICS: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The concept of a world event was conceived first by Air Marshal Nur Khan. And Ali Iqtadir Shah (Dara), that enterprising PHF (Pakistan Hockey Federation) Secretary, succeeded in marketing this project with flawless efficiency and convincing the FIH top brass in 1969. On March 27, 1971, Pakistan presented a superbly carved trophy, designed by Bashir Moojid and crafted by the skilful artists drawn from the Corps of EME. The emblem of supremacy in world hockey is made of 895 grams of gold, 6815 grams of silver, 350 grams of ivory and 3500 grams of teakwood. It weighs 11,560 grams.

The dream of staging the inaugural event in Lahore was destroyed by the anti-India stir led by the former cricket captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar. Compelled to search for an alternative venue to accommodate India, the FIH accepted the offer from Spain. With 10 nations competing, the World Championship became a reality. Pakistan’s full-back Tanvir Dar slotted a place in the tournament’s history by netting the first goal against Argentina.

The fecundity of the World Cup offers a fascinating study. Haphazard in the initial stages — four editions of the championship were held in a space of seven years between 1971 and 1978 — the tournament progressively acquired a filament of professionalism, at least in determining a four-year cycle between the Olympic Games and limiting the event to the top 12 except in 2002 when FIH agreed to 16 teams for a different format. The World Cup generated a noticeable euphoria across the globe and this enhanced the game’s profile and elevated its ethos.

The whole aspect of competition ascended a different plane of aesthetic delight, with the focus on scientific training, sophisticated systematisation of style and strategy and structuring of the game’s administration. In a nutshell, the World Cup acted as a catalyst in giving competitive hockey a universal image.

Successive and successful championships, stretching from Barcelona to the last edition in Monchengladbach in 2006, brought to the scene vignettes that gave the sport an enchanting vibrancy. Their depth and dimension were mind-boggling; in almost every aspect there was visible human ingenuity.

Master tacticians… coach Barry Dancer of Australia (right) in conversation with the Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans (centre) and German coach Bernhard Peters.-

If the Dutch masters such as Ties Kruize, Paul Litjens and Floris Bovelander provided a new insight into taking penalty corners with the current icon, Taeke Taekema, holding the flag, the likes of Islahuddin, Sheikh Shahnaz, Hassan Sardar, Shabaz Ahmed, Ashok Kumar and Dhanraj Pillay symbolised the aesthetic component, the essence of Asian style.

The Aussie stalwarts such as Ric Charlesworth, Terry Walsh and Colin Batch, Germany’s Steven Bloecher and Christoph Bechmann, Holland’s Stephen Veen, and South Korea’s Song Tse Sung all displayed the charming blend of skill and athleticism, while the immensely gifted Ajitpal Singh, Akhtar Rasool, Marc Delissen, Christian Blunk and Warren Birmingham left their imprint on the sands of time, underlining the fundamentals of mid-field play. The indefatigable British icon at the goal, Ian Taylor, cannot be omitted in any hall of fame nor can Asia ignore the magnificent, intrepid Manzoor whose save in the final helped Pakistan defeat Netherlands in Sydney. Admittedly, the list is exhaustive.

The intensity and improvisations demonstrated had to be sustained by constant fine-tuning that stretched the imagination of the coaches across the spectrum. While the Asians stuck with the tried and tested formula, the European and Aussie coaches devised and designed a plethora of theories to conquer the opposition. From the Aussie craftsmen, Richard Aggiss and Barry Dancer, to the Dutch tacticians, Hans Jorritsma, Maurits Hendricks and Roelant Oltmans to the unflappable German, Bernhard Peters, who piloted his team to its first World Cup triumph in Kuala Lumpur in 2002 and helped it retain the cup before a huge home crowd in Monchengladbach, the inputs of the coaches have been remarkable.

Pakistan captain Shahbaz Ahmed with the World Cup after beating Netherlands via the tie-breaker in the final in Sydney in 1994.-

Statistically, Pakistan has the best record in the World Cup — four title triumphs (in 1971, 1978, 1982 and 1994) and two second-place finishes (1975 and 1990) — followed by the Netherlands with three gold medals (1973, 1990 and 1998), two silvers (1978 and 1994) and a bronze (2002).

India began with a bronze in 1971, won a silver medal in 1973 and recorded its finest hour in 1975 by winning the World Cup. But progressively, it slithered down in the rankings and hit the lowest spot —12th — in Willesden in 1986.

A close study of the ebb and flow of the World Cup brings to the mind’s eye an enchanting vista of a sport that is clearly enlarging its base across the continents. What New Delhi holds for the hockey community is best left to guess.