Remarkable turnaround

Uplifting victory…players of the German team celebrate with the Champions Trophy at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.-

The manner in which Germany raised its game and bounced back from defeats in the pool stage to win the title for the 10th time was simply astounding, writes Y. B. Sarangi.

Germany and Pakistan, the two bottom-placed teams in the pool stage, featuring in the title clash of the 35th Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar recently pointed to the flux in world hockey following the World Cup this year. The turnaround of the two teams though was fascinatingly different.

Olympic champion Germany, which had been struggling through the year, with some below par performances in the World League Final and the World Cup, had the maximum number of youngsters in its squad. And most of them were part of the 2013 Junior World Cup-winning side.

Germany, which came into the tournament following an indoor hockey season, had to deal with the difference in temperatures of around 30 degrees. The team, ranked No. 3 in the world, managed a hard-fought win against India before losing to Argentina and the Netherlands to finish at the bottom of Pool B. However, the manner in which Germany raised its game and made a comeback was simply astounding.

Guided by the master tactician, Markus Weise, the German team raised its game by several notches to defeat England and Australia in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively before stifling Pakistan in the final to regain the Champions Trophy after seven years. Incidentally, this was Germany’s 10th title triumph in the elite tournament.

“It took a while to get adjusted to the tournament, but the team effort was there and we made progress against England and Australia. The younger boys learnt a lot by playing here before the amazing crowd,” said Weise.

“The progress will help in building the team for the Rio Olympics,” he added.

Pakistan, the lowest ranked side, which had been struggling due to a lack of exposure and financial crisis, had a nightmarish start to the tournament. It lost all its three matches to strong sides, Belgium, England and Australia, before finding its rhythm to defeat the higher ranked Netherlands (World Cup silver medal winner) in the quarterfinals and the Asian Games champion, India, in the semifinals.

However, the three-time champion, making it to the final after 16 years, had to settle for the silver medal, losing to a far superior Germany in the summit clash.

Even as Pakistan’s second place finish reflected the country’s talent pool and resilience, the offensive behaviour of its players, who made obscene gestures at the crowd during their wild celebrations following their semifinal victory against archrival India, brought the nation a bad name on the international stage.

The International Hockey Federation (FIH) had initially let off Pakistan following an ‘apology’ from its head coach Shahnaz Sheikh.

But later, the apex body changed its stand and suspended two players — midfielder Muhammad Tousiq and reserve goalkeeper Ali Amjad — for one match and reprimanded another — vice-captain and forward Shafqat Rasool — after Hockey India had threatened that it might withdraw from hosting major international events such as the 2016 Junior World Cup and the 2018 Men’s World Cup.

The Hockey India President, Narinder Batra, also threatened to call off the proposed bilateral series with Pakistan, after which the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) sent a mail to the Indian federation, apologising for its players’ behaviour.

The unacceptable conduct of the Pakistani players, which had drawn criticism from players of various teams, triggered angry reactions from the spectators, who booed the team in the final and rooted strongly for Germany.

Shahnaz Sheikh, who rued the ugly behaviour of his players, said the result was beyond his expectation and should boost Pakistan hockey. “We had come here with a target to reach the last four, but we went one step further by reaching the final,” he said.

It was not an encouraging tournament for the world champion, Australia, which had several new faces and was guided by a new coach, Graham Reid.

The 13-time champion — which felt the absence of the retired Liam de Young and Rob Hammond and the injured Mark Knowles, Jamie Dwyer, Kieran Govers and Joel Carroll — had a rollercoaster ride before ending up with a bronze medal after beating India in the third place match.

World No. 9 India, enjoying the best year after 1980, when it had won the Olympics gold medal — it had won a gold in the Asian Games and a silver in the Commonwealth Games earlier this year — was expecting to end its 32-year medal drought in the competition. But the team struggled for consistency, as it began its campaign with defeats to Germany and Argentina before stunning the Netherlands in its final pool engagement.

India, which has won only a bronze medal (1982) in the history of the Champions Trophy, went down fighting to Pakistan in a high voltage semifinals, and to Australia in the fight for the third place. Indian hockey’s High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans backed the team, saying the players were tired after a long season. He, however, pointed out that they needed to be more consistent while executing plans.

“We have beaten the top three teams in the world this year,” Oltmans said. “If this group stays together it has a bright future,” he added, referring to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Strong teams such as the Netherlands, England, Argentina and Belgium filling up the bottom four places raised questions about the format of the Champions Trophy, which ensured quarterfinal berths for all the participating teams. However, the FIH President, Leandro Negre, defended the format, saying it was good for the promotion of the sport. “We have to sell the sport,” he said.

As for the organising of the tournament, Bhubaneswar, the latest of international hockey venues, received good reviews from various teams.

Amidst a festive atmosphere, packed houses on all six days enhanced the appeal of the event.

The FIH, which is considering the option of holding the 2018 World Cup at more than one venue, has short-listed the city for the mega event following the successful conduct of the Champions Trophy.