The Cup that enchants

GERMANY'S CAPTAIN Florian Kunz celebrates his equaliser in the final against Australia in Kuala Lumpur in 2002 with Mathias Witthaus. Germany won 2-1.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

World Cup hockey has had to weather many TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS in its efforts to meet the demands of a growing global audience. S. THYAGARAJAN traces the history of the championship.

Any introspection into the ebb and flow of the hockey World Cup envelops an enthusiast in an emotional melange. It is difficult to remain unaffected by the vicissitudes of a competition that enhanced the enchanting vista of a sport, which remained cocooned in the casket of amateurism for far too long.

Consciously conceived as an instrument to combating the threat of being eliminated from the Olympics, the World Cup had to weather many trials and tribulations before reaching the stage of vibrancy it is in today, a few days before the 11th edition goes on stage at Monchengladbach from September 6.

The competition has not merely enriched the administrative fibre but triggered a new dynamics and sophistication in coaching, training, and systematisation to meet the demands of the growing global audience.

Pakistan's Sohail Abbas who was the joint top-scorer with Jorge Lombi of Argentina in the 2002 World Cup.-RAJEEV BHATT

It is now puerile to discuss whether the seeds were sown by India or Pakistan. History confirms that Pakistan displayed greater vision and enterprise to chart an acceptable road map. Ali Iqtadir Shah, (Dara) succeeded in convincing the authorities, both at home and in the FIH, to launch the World Cup in 1970 in Lahore. Unfortunately, the political developments in Pakistan precluded the birth of the championship there.

Predictably, the sceptics wondered whether the aborted start could ever be revived. As the clock ticked, heightening misgivings, Spain offered the stage; the World Cup became a reality on October 15, 1971. Perhaps, it was poetic justice that Pakistan should win the inaugural tournament, and that too by beating Spain in the final.

INDIA'S FINEST MOMENT came in Kuala Lumpur in 1975 when the team, led by Ajitpal Singh (in pic with the World Cup along with B. P. Govinda), beat Pakistan 2-1 in the final.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

India, which won all the four pool matches — Pakistan lost to Spain (2-3) and drew with Holland (2-2) — had to fight for the bronze after losing 1-2 to Pakistan in the semi-final.

Energised by the response, the International Hockey Federation opted for the event once in two years. Europe was again in the forefront, Holland playing the host in 1973 at Amstelveen. This edition signalled a new era for the Dutch. Maestros like Thies Kruize and Paul Litjens transformed the essence of competitive hockey by elevating the whole aspect of penalty corner conversions into a fascinating exercise.

India, after beating Pakistan 2-1 in the semi-final, figured in a classic duel for the cup with the Netherlands. The match meandered to a tiebreaker — a novelty then — and ended as a heart breaker for India. The saga of European excellence commenced at that point with the Netherlands positioning itself in the vanguard.

Momentous from India's point of view was the triumph in Kuala Lumpur in 1975 in a rain affected 14-team competition. Veterans continue to recall with a touch of nostalgia the final against Pakistan and the goal that Ashok Kumar slotted to give the title fight a touch of romance. For skipper Ajitpal Singh, this was his finest hour.

The euphoria that swept across India could not sustain itself for long. The World Cup moved to Latin America — Buenos Aires — where Pakistan, on the threshold of a golden streak, pushed the Netherlands out in the final in 1978.

The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where India won the gold medal, was no doubt a dampener, but the next edition of the World Cup in Mumbai in 1982 did raise interest. By now Holland, Germany, Australia and the Soviet Union had established their status as major powers in hockey.

The tournament was a disaster for India, which finished fifth, while Pakistan, led by that imperious mid-fielder, Akhtar Rasool, retained the cup, beating West Germany 3-1 in the final. This was the phase when stars such as Hassan Sardar, Ric Charlesworth and Steven Bloecher were beginning to shine on the horizon.

More importantly, hockey was undergoing a metamorphosis from natural grass to synthetic. Although the artificial pitch surfaced in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics, it became a reality in the World Cup only in 1986 at Wembley. The power alignment had a dramatic change when Australia lifted the glittering trophy, defeating England 2-1 in the final. It was a dream come true for coach Richard Aggiss as much as it was for stalwarts such as Ric Charlesworth, Terry Walsh, Colin Batch, Craig Davies and Trava King. The sub-continent hit the nadir with Pakistan finishing 11th and India 12th.

Lahore 1990 was memorable for Pakistan as the country, which couldn't stage the inaugural edition, finally managed to host the World Cup. For India, led by Pargat Singh, it was a nightmare, having had to face the hostile crowds. The crucial match against Holland had to be stopped because of the `missiles' thrown at the Indian players.

Pakistan, playing in front of a crowd of 60,000 expectant fans, failed to deliver as the Dutch snatched the trophy riding on the brilliance of penalty corner specialist Floris Bovelander.

Pakistan's revenge came four years later in Sydney. It floored the Dutch via the tiebreaker (4-3), with Manzoor playing a heroic role, ahead of accomplished stick-wielders like Shahbaz Ahmed, Waseem Feroze and Tahir Zaman.

The victory put Pakistan back on the summit.

Utrecht 1998 provided the Dutch the stage to re-establish their mastery. The Netherlands was an outstanding squad having won the Olympics and the Champions Trophy preceding the World Cup. By now the world was alive to the amalgam of the Dutch power under Roelant Oltmans and the individual brilliance of Steven Veen, Jacques Brinkmann, and Teun di Nooijer, rated the best player in contemporary hockey. Nooijer's golden goal signalled the Dutch sweep. Pakistan finished fifth, while India slumped to the ninth under Dhanraj Pillay.

The FIH's decision to increase the number of teams to 16 in four pools for the 2002 World Cup did not meet with universal approval. Though 16 teams were in the fray, the four-pool system had to be given up following MHF's protest. Each team played six matches before the second stage, which drained almost every player. Like Australia in 1996, Germany realised its dream of a World Cup triumph under the gangling Florian Kunz, defeating Australia 2-1 in the final.

At Monchengladbach, a new saga is waiting to unfold.