The great German show

Germany was clearly the dominant side in the tournament. It was also the most elegant team, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Competitive hockey was transported to a new realm of excellence and technical sophistication even as Germany came up with a display of rare majesty to capture the Champions Trophy for a record ninth time in Kuala Lumpur recently.

The fantastically fit Germany, which last won the Champions Trophy in Rotterdam in 2001, showed the hockey community across the globe what an aberration it was that it had failed to secure an automatic berth for the forthcoming Olympics in Beijing.

Since that tragic moment at the European Championships in Manchester, where a fourth-place finish rendered it ineligible for an automatic berth for the Olympics — the slot was surprisingly taken by Belgium — Germany, under the unobtrusive coach, Marcus Weisse, was on a strategic re-planning course to chart out a fresh route to Beijing. Germany should come through the qualifiers, to be played in Japan in April 2008.

That Germany ensured its place in the final with a match to spare underlined its dominance in pool matches. A draw against traditional rival, the Netherlands, and a rather indifferent showing against Australia in a match of academic interest were the two negative results in its seven-match schedule.

What lent charm and a rare elegance to Germany’s performance was the way in which its players synthesised speed, skill and strategy, not to speak of the one-tap passing and powerful across the field hits. At the helm of it all was the veteran Matthias Witthaus. He was ably assisted by the defenders, Timo Wess, the captain, and Maximilian Mueller, whose superlative goal-line save in the final kept Germany ahead of Australia. The all-rounder in the pack was the ebullient Florian Keller, who played the role of a striker and a flicker with delectable ease. But a review of Germany’s triumph will not be complete without a tribute to the team’s goalkeeper, Christian Schulte. Each one of his saves was as eye-catching as the other.

League table

In contrast, Australia’s route to the final was bumpy. Till the 5-0 victory against Germany in the last league match, Australia was uncertain of its place in the final; instead many expected either South Korea or the Netherlands to feature in the title clash against Germany. With Korea floundering pathetically against Pakistan and Great Britain after raising high hopes, and the Netherlands not getting the additional goal against Pakistan, Australia made it to the final.

Australia was in poor shape — the players lacked systematic play as well as individual flair. Even a seasoned campaigner like Brent Livermore was below par. The task of organising the attacks thus fell on Jamie Dwyer. In the frontline, barring Grant Schubert none was assertive. True, Nathan Eglington was prominent on the wing, but the team missed him for the major part of the final as he was penalised with a yellow card.

On the whole, it was a performance unworthy of the Olympic champion. If Australia’s coach Barry Dancer was displeased with the outcome, he is truly justified.

For the Netherlands, the defending champion, the tournament was not one worth remembering. The quality of its play alternated between good and the mediocre. Clearly the seniors, including the two stalwarts, Jerome Delmee and Teun di Nooijer, looked jaded even though the latter showed flashes of brilliance. The two pillars of the Netherlands were Taeke Taekema, the top scorer in the tournament with Korea’s Jang Jong Hyun with seven goals each, and Rob Reckers, the highest scorer of field goals. The 2-6 defeat to South Korea was the Dutch’s worst moment in the tournament.

Early in the tournament, South Korea threatened to demolish every opponent. Even against the redoubtable Germany, it led for the best part before stumbling to a 2-1 defeat. However, progressively, the team lost its sharpness, and the draws against Great Britain and Pakistan left it high and dry.

Expectedly, drag-flicker Jang Jong Hyun was the cynosure with seven goals to his credit. Korea’s attack depended on the acceleration of You Hio Sik, Yeo Woon Koon and Lee Nam Young, but they rarely worked in tandem to keep up the pressure. Spain went through a harrowing phase initially, which raised doubts about its chances of qualifying for the next edition in Rotterdam. However, in the end, its fifth-place finish ensured Spain a berth at the next Champions Trophy at the expense of Great Britain. Maurits Hendriks, the Spanish coach, admitted that his boys were rusty for the major part of the tournament. Eduard Tubau and Santi Friexa were Spain’s prominent stars when it came to scoring goals.

For sheer grit and determination there was none to match the British. The way the team hammered Pakistan, the former champion, showed what sort of pressure it can put on the opposing teams. The experience of Ben Hawes and the timely penalty corner hits by Richard Mantell put Great Britain two spots ahead of Pakistan and Malaysia.

Pakistan’s display was pathetic. It will miss the next event. Disjointed and lacking in motivation, Pakistan struggled to put together moves with fluency and finesse. That it managed only a solitary win in seven matches points to its frailties.

For Malaysia, the eighth-place finish was no embarrassment. It had little time to prepare as the onus of conducting the tournament fell on the nation at the last moment. However, the team played without any inhibitions. The way players like Selvaraju, Jiwa Mohan and Abu Ismail have shaped up showed that Malaysia had recovered well from its disastrous performance at the Doha Asian Games, which necessitated change of team coach — Sarjit Singh replacing Wallace Tan.

Thus, another Champions Trophy passed into history after raising needless apprehensions and controversy.