Azlan Shah Cup 2019: 'No head coach, but India have hockey knowledge on board,' says Siegfried Aikman
Gauging success and failure in sport can often be tricky - and given the ever-fluctuating fortunes of the Indian hockey team - engaging in such an evaluation is an arduous task at the end of which the findings are often inconclusive and open to interpretation.
One-hundred days after a relatively inexperienced Indian team very nearly created history at the Kalinga Stadium after a see-sawing 2018 season, another young outfit will attempt to begin the year on a high in the Malaysian city of Ipoh where the twenty-eighth edition of the longest-running invitational hockey tournament begins on Saturday.
The opposition, at Ipoh, will not be quite as menacing as that of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the Breda Champions Trophy, or the Odisha World Cup - nor even of a quality that the Indians were up against in the same tournament last year when Australia, England, and Argentina gave the crowds an exhibition of top-class hockey.
It is, perhaps, for the best, however, that the Indians have less-than-formidable adversaries to contend with on the pitch, for they will first need to overcome the confidence barriers following a period of dizzying ups and downs in quick succession over the last twelve months.
How will history look back at the year of reckoning?
The year 2018 was a year of reckoning for Indian hockey - a jam-packed schedule with one prestigious tournament after another that created an air of expectancy like never before in conscious memory.
A fledgling team impressed at Ipoh last year but failed to make it to the podium, while a full-strength squad (sans Sardar Singh and Ramandeep Singh) returned empty-handed from Gold Coast prompting a change at the helm.
A rejuvenated unit which looked determined to make amends stunned their detractors with silver at Breda - but just when a resurrection was on the cards, the Indians failed to defend their Asian Games title in spite of being the highest-ranked side by quite a margin.
For hockey lovers in India, the story of 2018 will always revolve around what could have been - and what was so very nearly achieved.
A decade back it may have been inconceivable to imagine the Indians occupying the fifth slot in the world rankings - yet, that is precisely what Harendra Singh's boys achieved - only to surrender the advantage when it mattered the most.
When the Indian team management look back, they will no doubt realize, that it was not so much the quarterfinal loss in the World Cup that was the issue - but rather how the Indians missed out on gold at Jakarta when the think-tank was focussed solely on the Asian Games ahead of all else.
Without pressure, India is fantastic - Siegfried Aikman
From an Indian perspective, the bygone year is best summed up by an individual whose team did not necessarily need to win the title at Jakarta given the fact they qualify automatically as hosts.
Yet, Samurai Japan recorded a title triumph which has served to change the contours of Asian hockey after getting past Pakistan in the semifinals, an hour or so after the Malaysians delivered a deathly blow to India's aspirations at the Asian Games.
"Without pressure, India is fantastic - see the Champions Trophy, and both the Asian Games and Asian Champions Trophy - but under pressure, it’s another ball game - then they don’t perform that well which gave Malaysia an opportunity at the Asian Games - and us, an opportunity at the Asian Champions Trophy."
Siegfried Aikman knows precisely what he is talking about. The Indians demolished Japan by an 8-0 margin in a group match of the Asian Games and followed it up with another 9-0 thrashing in the Asian Champions Trophy pool encounter - but sweated to a narrow 3-2 win in the semifinals at Muscat.
Yet, 2018 is now history, and the Indians will need to pick up the pieces and begin a new season which is not so crowded as the last - but at the end of which they will have to ensure that they reserve a berth for the Tokyo Olympics.
Winning the Azlan Shah Cup will give the Indians the much-needed impetus to put the perceived failures of the previous year behind them and focus on the task ahead - but without a head coach and with several key players injured - do the Indians have it in them to win gold?
The Indians play Japan in the opener of the Azlan Shah Cup and Sportskeeda caught up with coach Siegfried Aikman who is fine-tuning his boys for the tournament.
As part of an exclusive and insightful interview, the Dutchman analyzes India's prospects, looks at the potential title aspirants and explains how the popularity of Japanese hockey has received a fillip with Samurai Japan being awarded the best sporting team by a local newspaper.
Six nations will clash for top honors at Ipoh. South Africa was replaced at the very last minute by Poland who will join India, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and hosts Malaysia.
Coach Aikman was emphatic that his team will go all-out for a win at Ipoh and is not viewing the tournament as just a preparatory one.
"Indian team young - but competent enough to win"
"We always want to win and therefore we need to stretch our performance. We worked hard on some details which we might benefit from in the longer term, but it’s necessary to do them well at present too."
The opening encounter sets the tone for the tournament and the Asian Games champions will clash against the Asia Cup champions - can the Japanese upset a depleted Indian squad and go on to win the title?
"We never know how it will be - we hope to do better but it takes two to tango. It will be interesting to see how they (India) perform when the medal matches are played. In the group matches, they can do a lot but that is not representative of how it will be when they play for medals. I think we will do better this time because we are progressing step by step."
"Although India brings a young team, it doesn’t mean that it’s an incompetent team. They have good and experienced players who can win this tournament. The team has members who became junior world champions and they have players who played high-performance competition matches and achieved the 5th place in the world rankings."
"They should win this tournament easily based on this - but sports doesn’t work like that! Malaysia and Canada are close to their Olympic qualifiers and they have to approach their best shape to excel in those tournaments."
"I think these are the potential winners and, of course, we will try to flip the script, but we are the lowest-ranked team ahead of Poland (ranked 21st) who are a last-minute inclusion."
The Indians are, however, without a head coach - will that impact performance?
"Normally it would matter, but they have Chris (Ciriello) who has been with the team for a very long time and he will have a major part to play with his inputs. They (India) still have hockey knowledge on board," says Aikman.
Which are the teams in the fray that can hope to outdo the Indians at Ipoh and challenge India consistently at the Asian level given Pakistan's decline?
"We (Japan) hope to be one of them but, unfortunately, we are a very small sport in Japan with little support - but it is the Samurai spirit which brought us where we are now and who knows how far we can go?"
"Realistically, it should have been Korea (who could have challenged India) although they are suffering some problems at the moment. Malaysia has great facilities while China has more or less similar potential as Japan, but more facilities to perform and can also challenge India."
"Japanese hockey teams are great ambassadors for the sport"
Samurai Japan (the national men's hockey team) was recently conferred a sporting honor (Best Sports Team of 2018) by a Japanese newspaper and the coach believes that the Asian Games gold medalists can do with better publicity.
"It helps when you get positive attention in the media. Media are a huge marketing part and they can make or break you because through the media you can reach people you otherwise wouldn’t reach."
"When the media is positive, people might be interested to see why and visit some hockey matches. It’s not only the men’s team who did well. The more popular Sakura Japan (the women's team) did well too and both teams are real hockey ambassadors and are spending lots of time sharing their passion with others."
A keen encounter is on the cards on Saturday when the top-ranked Indians take on Japan (ranked 18th) at 16:05 IST at the start of the week-long round-robin competition with the top two sides making it to the finals while the other teams end their campaign with classification matches.