Vibrant growth

One up... `Player of the Year', Teun De Nooijer of Netherlands dribbles past David Alefre of Spain in the Sahara Champions Trophy in Chennai.-AP

As the dynamic FIH President Els Van Breda Vriesman put it in perspective, 2005 was significant for development in more ways than one, writes S. THYAGARAJAN.

A recap of the year that was in competitive hockey is fascinatingly nostalgic. As the dynamic FIH President Els Van Breda Vriesman put it in perspective during the Chennai edition of the Champions Trophy, 2005 was significant for development in more ways than one. She identified two features; first, the triumph for the marketing of the sport through a TV contract for four years and, secondly, the increase in the number of women teams in the Olympics from 10 to 12.

Remarkable as the two areas of growth were, reflecting the vibrancy acquired through a multitude of competitions across the globe, the year marked a noticeable spell of activity all through. The Champions Trophy for men and women, two Junior World Cups and a host of qualifying events, besides the popular Azlan Shah and Rabobank Trophy, all formed part of an enchanting milieu.

A dimension was added when the Indian Hockey Federation, in association with the TV giant, ESPN, launched the National Hockey League (NHL) in a format with features similar to that of the NBA. The championship — played in Hyderabad — included matches played in four parts of 20 minutes each. Teams carrying exotic names like Hyderabad Sultans, Chennai Veerans, Sher-E-Punjab, Maratha Warriors were formed featuring nearly a dozen Pakistani players headed by the inimitable Sohail Abbas and the Spainish veteran Juan Escarre. The Hyderabad Sultans, led by the Indian captain, Dilip Tirkey, clinched the top spot and a sizable amount of prize money.

What set the tone and tenor for the year on the international scene was the Champions Challenge at Alexandria. Argentina underlined its growing stature when it turned the tables on South Korea in the final after losing the league tie. The turnaround was possible due to the brilliant display of drag flicking by the Argentine icon, Jorge Lombi.

One venue that annually projects hockey's power equations is the Azlan Shah at Kuala Lumpur. Seven teams without a single European squad figured in an exciting competition, which culminated in Australia picking up the handsome trophy; thanks to superb golden goal by Criag Victory. Initially, it was Pakistan that looked like racing towards the cup till a splendid display by the home team led by Kuhen Shamuganathan pricked their bubble. While India, which, as usual, showed its ups and downs, finished fifth, by virtue of a golden goal by Prabhjot Singh against the Malaysians who had some significant gains but managed only a sixth place.

The focus then shifted to Europe, to Rotterdam, where the 16-team Junior World Cup for men ended with Argentina shocking the Aussies in the final. None of the Asian squads, including India, which entered the fray as the defending champion, earned a place on the podium. A controversial moment in the bronze medal match, when a goal by Raja was disallowed, robbed India of a possible third place. Spain won on strokes.

The eight-nation Rabobank Trophy at Amstelveen climaxed to a glorious finish when Pakistan rose to great heights to lower the colours of the Olympic Champion, Australia, in a memorable final. The Aussies looked invincible as they steamrolled the opposition, but Pakistan on that balmy afternoon laid the formidable rival flat in the last quarter. The Rabobank event, coming as it did a fortnight before the prestigious European Cup at Leipzig, served as the preparing ground for Germany, Netherlands — winner of the four-nation Masters at Hamburg — Spain and England.

Quite predictably, the European Cup proved eventful with teams like Belgium and Poland causing waves before Spain established its credentials as a nation on the rise, against the Dutch in the final. Spain and Netherlands ensured their places for the World Cup to in Germany next year.

Well done... Mathew Wells, captain of Australia, with the Champions Trophy. To his left is FIH President Els Van Breda.-VINO JOHN

Qualifying events preceding the next World Cup attracted huge attention. In Pretoria in the African Nations Cup, South Africa emerged the winner against Egypt, while the Olympic Champion, Australia, beat New Zealand 5-1 in the Oceania Cup in Fiji to join the qualifiers. Along the way, they both trounced Fiji 26-0 and 16-0 respectively.

There was plenty of action on the distaff side too. The highlight perhaps was re-emergence of the Dutch women as the prima donnas of world hockey, capturing both, the European Cup in Dublin and the Champions Trophy in Canberra. The twin triumphs reconfirmed the fact that Netherlands is back to where it was years ago, before the Aussies displayed an awesome measure of superiority.

Korea emerged champion at the Junior women's World Cup in Santiago, raising the hopes that the country, which was a dominant force in Asia and in the world not long ago is getting back into the mainstream. The Indians ended up 11th among the 16.

The Kiwi women, who lost to Australia in the three-Test series to determine the qualifier for the Madrid World Cup enjoyed a fleeting moment of exultation when they won the Champions Challenge in Virgina Beach pushing South Africa to the second spot.

Teun de Nooijer of the Netherlands and Luciana Aymar of Argentina were chosen as the male and female player of the year respectively. Maartje Gojerie and Robert van der Horst, both of Holland, were picked as the Young Players of the Year 2005.

Royal triumph... Hyderabad Sultans lifted the trophy in the inaugural National Hockey League Championship.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Back home, New Delhi hosted the Indira Gandhi tournament, which the Aussies — led by Niki Hudson — won in a tie-breaker against India.

On the domestic front, apart from the NHL, the senior national in Hyderabad, was a significant event. Punjab and Sind Bank annexed the Rangaswamy Cup in an event that featured as many as 40 outfits.

Outside of the field there were a handful of issues that prompted widespread debate. The refusal of Troy Elder of Australia to join the team for Azlan Shah and opting, instead, to play in the Dutch league stirred up a controversy. Muhammad Saqlain of Pakistan was involved in more than one incident. At Azlan Shah, the Tournament Director Van't Hek had to issue a red card to Saqlain for his bizzare tackle on the Korean mid-fielder. So outraged were the Koreans that they threatened to withdraw from the event if Saqlain was not punished.

Again, at the Masters in Hamburg, Saqlain angered the Aussies after his tackle on Craig Victory resulted in serious facial and dental injuries to the player. Referred for action by FIH from the TD, Alain Renaud, the Judicial Commission, slapped a three-match suspension. But the PHF went on appeal to the Court of Arbitration (CAS), and the reprieve enabled him to play in all the matches in the Champions Trophy in Chennai. It was feared at the beginning that Saqlain would not be allowed to play in the first three matches.

Indian stars Kanwalpreet Singh and Gagan Ajit Singh had to serve periods of suspension for their alleged misconduct against Deepak Thakur and Bikramjit Singh respectively. But the suspension was lifted before the stipulated period.

The Chennai Champions Trophy completed the calendar. An incomprehensible concatenation of circumstances relating to the live telecast forced the FIH to re-schedule the matches, just two days before the start, evoking furious protest from the coaches. Yet the event, threatened by rain before the start and nearing the end, was completed as programmed. Australia regained the trophy it won last in 1999, followed by the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Pakistan and India bringing up the rear.

With two World Cups, two Champions Trophies and as many qualifying competitions on the agenda, besides the usual tournaments, the year 2006 promises to provide the hockey community a fantastic feast.