The goalkeeper who played as a forward

Adrian D’Souza (extreme right) is prominent as the players address a press conference during the crisis.-AP Adrian D’Souza (extreme right) is prominent as the players address a press conference during the crisis.

"People always have high expectations because India has the maximum number of gold medals at the Olympic Games. We would certainly want to be in the limelight for winning on the field and making our country proud. At the same time, we want the support we got from the nation to continue not only in the coming World Cup, but forever," says team goalkeeper Adrian D’Souza, in this interview with Nandakumar Marar.

Adrian D’Souza emerged as the public face for the Indian World Cup probables, who went on strike at Balewadi, Pune, recently, protesting against Hockey India’s inaction over payment of cash incentives for performances in 2009. He appeared at press conferences and television debates to present the players’ viewpoint in response to probing questions from the media, former internationals and administrators on the decision of the players to stop training one month before the 2010 World Cup.

The India goalkeeper is familiar with pressure situations, having made 114 international appearances (up to Champions Challenge 2009 in Argentina). Life takes on a surreal appearance when he is in goal, with his face hidden behind a helmet and body padded with protective gear. The mask was not there during the six-day strike, as Adrian used his communication skills as one of four spokespersons, along with Arjuna Halappa, Prabhjyot Singh and Deepak Thakur, in negotiations with officials.

He played a critical role in keeping the 22 seniors together when the situation reached boiling point in the wake of HI’s 48-hour ultimatum to resume training or leave the camp. The laptop was a constant fixture in his room at the Balewadi Boys Hostel, as team-mates moved in and out of Adrian’s room for feedback on various issues during those stormy, tense, six days when the National probables made news for not playing.

From the start, the goalkeeper was clear in his mind about the need to take a strong stand and about who would benefit from the players’ agitation. “Parents of children interested in sport will choose on the basis of earning power. I feel this is the time for us seniors to do something for the sake of hockey-playing youngsters all over India who want to make it a career,” said Adrian, captain of India at the 2005 Junior World Cup and one of FIH’s nominees for ‘Most Promising Player of Year 2004’.

He emphasised that cash incentives for performances in 2009, demanded from the hockey administration, was not for the 22 seniors alone. “We wanted all those who played for India in 2009 to benefit. The list of players given to HI contained names of all team members of winning squads last year. This is a starting point, we hope others in the Indian hockey family will benefit,” he said.

A product of the Bombay Republicans Club, Adrian was chosen by the Air India Hockey Academy in New Delhi. He is now employed with Air India as Assistant Manager and represents the organisation in domestic events. He is confident of his team-mates carrying forward the Balewadi unity into the 2010 World Cup. “We certainly want to be in the limelight for winning on the field and making our country proud. At the same time, we want the support we got from the nation to continue not only in the forthcoming World Cup, but forever,” he said, overwhelmed by people’s support during the trying times.

Excerpts from an interview:

Question: A start has been made at Balewadi regarding cash incentives to Indian teams (men, women, juniors) for titles in international hockey. For youngsters to take up the game and for support from parents, what more is possible in the present circumstances?

Answer: We had seen our seniors trying to make a constant and regular incentive plan for players in the past. In the present circumstances, we as players need to get better in our ranking. India has slipped down and that is due to not qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Hockey has to be televised more so that people understand the sport and love watching it.

Hockey followers, outraged at the way players were taken for granted by officials, came out in support. Celebrities and corporates offered help so that you could get back to training and not worry about money matters. What is your opinion about this reaction?

Firstly, we were very happy and humbled to see the nation react this way. The reason for this, I believe, is the nation knew what our situation was and also realised that we stood up for what was right. Moreover, hockey is our national sport and can’t be treated this way.

Hockey India officials were talking openly that players were more interested in money than playing for their country. What would you like to tell the nation on this matter?

When we were told that we gave money priority over representing India, it really hurt us. We felt that our patriotism was being questioned. The nation knew that we definitely deserved something for what we did. If earning money had been our priority, I would be happily playing for my company, Air India, as they treat their sportspersons really well. The country will always be my first priority.

The united stand by the 22 players in Balewadi was a new happening in Indian hockey. What made the players stick together? Is there a lesson in this for other sportspersons?

We 22 players stood united all the way. For the first time no one backed out and we remained together. The best part is that now there is more unity in the team. I’m sure this will definitely help us in the tournaments ahead. I’m sure every other sportsperson, especially in a team sport, would appreciate that unity is very important when you want to win.

The Development Team in Lucknow backed the seniors on strike. What made these youngsters — the best of whom were in contention for places in the India squad for the World Cup as replacements for the seniors — take this courageous stand?

The development squad that is preparing for the SAF Games realised that we senior players were not only speaking for ourselves, but for all the hockey players across the nation and also the kids who will take up the sport.

Legend Dhanraj Pillay with school children in Ranchi. The players on strike contended that only if hockey was made monetarily attractive would the younger generation take to it.-PTI

The decision to stop training was the outcome of resentment building up in players over a period of time. Can you take us through 2009 for an idea of achievements from the players’ viewpoint? Is there a precedent in the form of cash incentives for titles?

Yes, in the past players did get incentives when they finished on the podium. Definitely, it is a kind of motivation. We, the players, did bring up this topic in our meeting long ago and also took it quite seriously by the end of 2009. Some of the tournaments in which we finished on the podium in 2009 were the Azlan Shah Cup, the Punjab Gold Cup and the Champions Challenge. These were three international events where we did quite well.

As a goalkeeper, you are familiar with reacting to shots at goal from all angles and dealing with many things at the same time. Was the decision to stop training in protest more challenging, individually and collectively, than a crisis situation in a match?

Playing as a goalkeeper has been a part of me since I was nine years old. This protest was something new, quite challenging at times. The support I was getting from all my teammates, and vice versa, made me stronger. We knew that we would make it work, come what may. Hopefully, in the near future, we wouldn’t have to do something like this. I hope the new hockey body to be elected will do its best for the future of the sport and the players.

A hockey-loving India has expectations from the national squad at the 2010 World Cup. Does the unity during strike extend to training sessions afterwards? Can we expect Indian hockey to be in the news for happy reasons in Delhi and after?

One thing is for sure, the nation will be watching us. More people are aware that the World Cup is to be hosted by India. People always have high expectations because India has the maximum number of gold medals at the Olympic Games. We would certainly want to be in the limelight for winning on the field and making our country proud. At the same time, we want the support we got from the nation to continue not only in the coming World Cup, but forever.

You are a more visible face now, having constantly appeared on television debates during the strike days and spent time away from hockey to fulfill the role of a spokesperson for the team. Any career thoughts away from hockey?

On the field I am very visible with my goalkeeping gear which makes me look like the odd man out. People have often told me that I look completely different in reality. I would certainly love to be in shows and debates, as a face for today’s youth. I would regard that as a humble thought, more than a career thought.