Yawning gap between the best and India

On a high... a jubilant German team with the trophy after winning the Hero Junior World Cup.-Pics: R.V, MOORTHY

The 10th place finish was the worst ever performance by India in the Junior World Cup. It is up to Hockey India and its experts to figure out what is the best way forward for Indian hockey, writes Y.B. Sarangi.

“This team was the youngest in the tournament, but in no way did they look or play like a young team. This is good news for German hockey,” said an elated German coach Andre Henning after his side overcame a strong challenge from an unheralded France to win the Junior World Cup for the sixth time in seven finals.

Henning, who is very passionate about his job, pointed out how the German team relied on mental strength and some incisive attacks led by Niklas Wellen, who scored a hat-trick, to make a strong comeback in the second half and overpower France 5-2 in the final. The teams were locked 1-1 at half-time after France tied down the Germans with its formidable midfield game.

In fact, it was Germany’s mental toughness that carried it forward and made it the deserving winner in the 10th edition of the under-21 event held at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi.

The defending champion overcame a shock start to its campaign, when it lost 2-3 to Belgium in its opening pool engagement, to go from strength to strength. The Germans’ meticulous planning and focused approach with the future in mind reflected in everything they did. The senior team coach, Mark Weise, assisting Henning in the championship was an indication that Germany took its future in the sport very seriously.

Several other top teams from Europe such as Belgium, the continental champion, and the Netherlands, had the backup of some well-known brains in the sport. Floris Evers was more than a manager to the Dutch team while Marc Lammers, assisting the Belgian side, was more than an assistant.

The sincerity of the French Hockey Federation in pursuing a four-year development programme showed as the team made it to the final of the Junior World Cup for the first time. Last year, the team finished among the top-four in the Junior European Championship.

France beat traditional hockey nations such as Spain, Argentina and Belgium (in the quarterfinals) before getting the better of Asian champion Malaysia via the tiebreaker in the semifinals. It truly spoke of the rising standards of hockey in France.

“I am proud of this team as the players showcased an exceptional game all through the tournament… Even though we could not win the title, we are happy to be the runner-up,” said the French coach, Gael Foulard.

Malaysia showed a lot of discipline. The team also made its mark because of its systematic approach in the past few years. It was the only Asian side to make it to the last four and the team members were in tears. “We are a small hockey nation. Before leaving our country, the media had termed the side ‘the bashing boys.’ We had nothing to lose, so we gave our best,” said the Malaysian coach, Muhammad Dhaarma Raj.

However, Malaysia’s 2-7 defeat to the Netherlands in the third-place match made it clear that there was a big gap between the European and the Asian nations.

The Netherlands was near flawless before narrowly losing to Germany in a high-quality semifinal clash. The side deserved a better rank than the third place it achieved. Several members of the squad have it in them to make it to the senior Dutch team in the coming years.

The home fans’ hopes were doused rather prematurely. Despite the availability of a large number of support staff and having had a long preparation and adequate international exposure, India performed miserably. The gap between the best and India was yawning indeed.

The host began its campaign with a 2-3 loss to the Netherlands then managed a hard-fought 3-2 win against Canada before drawing 3-3 against Korea and missing out on a quarterfinal berth.

Canada, which twice conceded seven goals against Korea and the Netherlands, finished 16th after being beaten by lesser-known Egypt, while Korea lost to an under-prepared New Zealand to end up in the eighth spot.

On a roll... Germany's Christopher Ruhr (left) emerged the top scorer of the Junior World Cup with nine goals.-

India struggling against Canada and Korea in the pool stage underlined the fact that the problem with Indian hockey was deep-rooted.

In the classification matches, the home side beat Argentina 4-2 but gave the worst performance of the tournament as it went down to arch rival Pakistan in the penalty shootout (2-4 after a 1-1 result in the regulation time) to end up 10th. This was the worst ever performance by India in the event.

The coach of the Indian team, Gregg Clark, the South African who had led Ranchi Rhinos to title triumph in the inaugural Hockey India League, said that apart from other aspects the team could not handle the pressure well.

The FIH (International Hockey Federation) president, Leandro Negre, also a former player, pointed out that the Indians might be lacking in ‘mental’ strength, while the Indian senior team captain Sardar Singh stressed on the need to have a psychologist with the players.

Indian hockey’s High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans said there was nothing positive about the junior team’s performance.

It is now up to Hockey India and its experts, including Oltmans and the senior team coach, Terry Walsh, to figure out what is the best way forward for Indian hockey.