Old or new: the format debate continues

S. THYAGARAJAN

DISCUSSION among hockey academics at KL-2002 centred around the format. Understandably so. Even before the efficacy of the 16-team system could be put on trial the FIH had decided to revert to the old 12-team pattern for the next edition. Opinion, predictably, is divergent, each from a different standpoint. One section believes the 4 x 4 format formulated after a great deal of debate and consensus spread over a period of three years cannot be jettisoned simply because of a few flaws perceived from a narrow point of view.

The FIH President Els Van Breda Vriesman, Sultan Aslan Shah, MHF President and Dato Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Youth and Sports Minister, at the opening ceremony of the 10th World Cup at Kuala Lumpur.-VINO JOHN

The whole concept of increasing the number was to make the World Cup more global and giving an opportunity to all sections to be part of it rather than confining to the traditional, elite 12-odd countries. The pertinent question is: when such an approach of having 32 countries for the World Cup can work for FIFA, why not for FIH? The prompt reply is: 'hockey is not football', meaning in soccer it is financially viable and not so for hockey, which is struggling to raise money through sponsorship.

The FIH was compelled to adopt the 16-team system but in a different format of 2 x 8 by the Malaysian HF. The argument was that spectator response would be negligible if the home team were to lose out a chance to be in the last four within two or three days after the start, which is possible in a 4 x 4 format. But going by the turnout in KL-2002, this point of view cannot be fully justified. Die-hard spectators do turn up whether the home team wins or loses.

Malaysian cultural performers during the opening ceremony.-VINO JOHN

Coaches and umpires are against the 16-team format because of the duration that makes a heavy demand on players' fitness. For umpires, many of whom are amateurs, a three-week long tournament, which will be ideal for the 16-team format, is beyond their limit to stay away from their professional work. Every system has its own merits and flaws. So does the 4 x 4. When queried, the FIH President Els said, "We reverted to the 12-team format to keep up the quality of competition." But restricting the 12 may also constrict the spread of the game. It is difficult to imagine whether five countries from Asia could have made it to KL but for the new format. Anyhow, the debate continues...

****

Former Indian hockey captains (from left) M. M. Somayya, Ajitpal Singh and V. Baskaran, on writing assignments for various newspapers, seen at the Media Centre.-VINO JOHN

It is agreed that an opening ceremony sets the tone and tenor for any mega event. At the Olympics, the host countries are known to spend millions of dollars for this, overlooking many other requirements. But it is a moot point whether to have a ceremony for a single discipline event involving capital expenditure. The Malaysian HF however thought it fit to organise an opulent opening day function. Unfortunately, it failed to get the response from the spectators, who were not present in large numbers at 2.30 p.m. on that hot and humid afternoon, or from the teams, all of whom were slated to play their matches a few hours later. Only the officials lined up for the marchpast when Sultan Azlan Shah, President, MHF, inaugurated the event along with the FIH President, Els van Breda Vriesman. Ideally, it would have been wonderful if the official inauguration was held a day before the actual schedule of play. But it must be admitted that the ceremony was colourful, creative, and competently choreographed to convey the cultural ethos of the multi-racial society in Malaysia. The FIH President, however, did not conceal her disapproval of the manner in which the opening ceremony was planned and executed but she said the FIH had nothing to do with the assessment of the local unit whose avenues for it were far greater. But that statement did not go down well with the MHF or even with the local media which saw the FIH's perception of the event as a humiliation to the host.

****

This Malaysian spectator, on a wheel chair, doesn't miss any matches at the Bukit Jalil stadium.-VINO JOHN

The 10th World Cup must be a unique experience to the gangling 32-year-old Vitaly Kholopov. He would have remained an unobtrusive player in the competition, away from the gaze of the media, if he had not scored that brilliant opening goal against the former World champion, Pakistan. When Kholopov hit that goal wearing Belgian colours he was the cynosure. He had three World Cups under his belt, and what more, each for a different country. In 1990 in Lahore, Kholopov 22 then, donned the Russian colours, and in Sydney in 1994 he was registered with Belarus, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Having migrated to set up a computer firm in Antwerp, Kholopov, married with three children, has very little time to devote to hockey. He figured for Belgium in the Edinburgh qualifier but not at the last Champions Challenge in KL. "It was never my intention to play for so many countries but circumstances ruled my fate and I now hold a record of sorts in the World Cup." Looking back, one feels sad for the disintegration of the Soviet Union's sports squads and the stalwarts moving out for greener pastures.

****

It is not only ex-cricketers who take to the print and electronic media to remain in focus and trade on their expert knowledge of the sport. Hockey stars of yesteryear, especially from India, are a handful in the media box, and this section includes the former victorious captain of the 1975 World Cup, Ajitpal Singh, Olympic captains, M. M. Somayya and V. Baskaran, Olympians, Jagbir Singh and Ashish Ballal, and international, Harendra Singh. Needless to say, they were aghast by the consistent display of poor form by the Indians here. Predictably, they targeted the flaws in coaching and even went to the extent of advocating the need for a foreign coach, whereas the FIH believes that Cedric is as equipped in tactics and theories as any coach trained under its Master Course. There were a handful of former Pakistan stars too, and they included such exotic players as Samiullah, Shahnaz and Islahuddin, the giants who ruled the game during the golden age. Islahuddin was commentating for PTV, and Samiullah is looking up for an assignment in China to prepare the team for the Asian Games at Pusan.

****

Belgium's Vitaly Kholopov has represented three different countries in the World Cup.-VINO JOHN

Another celebrity in the media and commentators' box is Ric Charlesworth, once the Aussie hockey icon, sought after by many for his views and frank analysis. A truly versatile person, credited with a sharp intellect, Dr. Richard Charlesworth is among the few colourful personalities of hockey. A world class inside-forward, a leader of outstanding virtues, one of the most successful coaches (women) in contemporary hockey, a cricketer, who probably missed the Australian Test cap for the love of hockey, is handling the microphone as competently as he wielded the stick during his heyday. And small wonder, the public in Perth chose him as their representative in Parliament years ago; his expertise even earned him a nomination for the Australian Cricket Academy in Canberra. "His reading of the match is amazing and it is an experience to work with him," said his fellow-commentator and veteran hockey writer, Pat Rowley.

****

A world event is not merely marketed for its sporting excellence but touted as an occasion for tourists and spectators to add colour and gaiety to the atmosphere. Although the number expected for KL-2002 was not as big, probably on account of the slump in tourism consequent to the terrorist strikes in the U.S. and the general recession the world over, there are diehard fans from several countries. A colourfully attired group from Holland is basking, literally, in the sunshine and the sequence of Dutch victories at Bukit Jalil. There are groups from Australia, New Zealand and England. The local Indians constitute a major force of support for the Indian team. Of course, there is a contingent from Tamil Nadu here, headed by Perumal of Chennai Hockey Fans Association. But the enthusiasm is such that we even spotted a regular differently abled person (handicapped) attending the matches sitting in a wheel-chair. If there is something called devotion to sport it is this.

****

There appears to be a definite breakdown of the system in marketing tickets for the World Cup. The general feeling is that pricing has been unrealistic, which probably reflected in a large number of seats being left unoccupied at the main stadium whose seating capacity was enhanced from 15,000 to 17,500. But many complained that tickets were not available despite the high price because the outlets chosen were either unresponsive or indifferent. Some corporate entities helped students to take advantage of the discounted tickets. But it is difficult to imagine why there was no interaction between the demand and supply. While there is a feeling that the Malaysian HF did not meet the demands, the empty seats told a different tale. The decision of the MHF not to issue complimentary tickets to its internationals, restricting them only to the World Cup and Olympic players, also came in for a lot of criticism. A former Secretary and a member of the FIH Rules Board, G. Vijaynathan, told the media that he did not get an invitation to witness the matches. The letters column in the local newspapers conveys the impression that there has been a major bungling in the sale of tickets. However, responding to the public anger and media criticism, the Malaysian Hockey Federation effected another drastic cut in ticket prices even while under pressure to garner resources for the event estimated to cost five million ringitts (Rs. 6.5 crores). While the reduction of ticket price earned a spontaneous response with the stadium filling up to capacity, the problem for the MHF did not end there. Those who purchased season tickets are demanding a refund cutting the price to the new change effected. One reader, identifying himself as a 'cheated fan' in the New Strait Times, has threatened to take the issue to the consumer court. It looks a case of first class bungling by MHF.

****

Cedric D'Souza (left) with the team doctor Kannan Pugazhendi and Divnain Singh at the media conference in the hockey stadium. Asked to hand over charge to the assistant coach, C. R. Kumar, by the IHF, and take rest for a couple of matches in the wake of the continued poor showing by the team, Cedric took this directive as an affront to his authority as coach.-VINO JOHN

India's poor showing in the first week enraged its die-hard supporters. They turned so abusive after India lost to Malaysia that Cedric had to request for police escort to cross the turf and come to the media conference hall. The tension among the Indian spectators who gathered in large numbers daily was clear enough. One fan asked a group of media personnel, "why don't you send the junior team that won the World Cup at Hobart? Now, you have spoiled the image of the Indians living here." It appears that a lot of betting takes place, though unofficially, whenever India figures in a match and a defeat inflicts a heavy damage on the punters. The local media people do admit that huge amounts are placed as bets favouring India. Wagering on a minor scale was also seen in the media centre for the India-Malaysia, and Korea-Malaysia matches. But that was in good fun, betting confined to two ringgets (Rs. 27 approx).

****

The most dramatic development in the first week of the World Cup was the controversy involving the Indian chief coach, Cedric D'Souza. Asked to hand over charge to the assistant coach, C. R. Kumar, by the IHF and take rest for a couple of matches in the wake of the continued poor showing by the team, Cedric took this directive as an affront to his authority as coach and decided to pack his bags and head back home. The IHF claimed he was not sacked, and Cedric interpreted the move as lack of confidence in him and therefore tantamount to being sacked from the post. "If they want a scapegoat, let them have it," Cedric told reporters.

Ric Charlesworth (right) is another celebrity in the media and commentators' box. "His reading of the match is amazing and it is an experience to work with him," says fellow-commentator and veteran hockey writer, Pat Rowley (left), of the Aussie icon.-VINO JOHN

The IHF Secretary-General, Jothikumar said, "He (Cedric) was under tremendous pressure. When a person is asking for divine intervention and luck, what's wrong in accepting the IHF's intervention?" More than debating whether the IHF was right or Cedric was wrong, or even vice-versa, the whole episode left a bitter taste and lowered the image of the country in the eyes of the international hockey fraternity. Even Cedric's critics, who did not agree with his modes, means and methods of training, viewed the controversy as unnecessary and blamed the IHF for precipitating matters. But the IHF officials, including the President, K. P. S. Gill maintained that Cedric was not sacked and only 'rested', which many interpret as a euphemism to showing the door. The same epithet was used by the IHF to sack the top seven after the Asiad gold in 1998. What is unfortunate is that the last word on this ugly episode has not been said.

****

Among the many Indians who are here to witness the World Cup there is a special guest. And he is none other than Aslam Sher Khan. Kuala Lumpur, for Aslam Sher Khan, should bring back nostalgic memories. For, it was here in 1975, he, in a sense, paved the way for India's golden moment by scoring the equaliser from a thundering penalty corner against Malaysia in the semi-final which forced the extra-time for Harcharan Singh to get the match winner. The rest is now history. A suave and soft-spoken man, Aslam Sher Khan, who is here with his wife, was happy to re-live those glorious moments. He has some strong views as a hockey administrator in Bhopal. He was a strong critic of the national selection and saw a stark regional bias in naming the squad for the World Cup. He referred to the absence of players from Bhopal, in particular, in the national team.