Hockey World Cup 2018: Harendra is the best-available coach for India, says Gerhard Rach
Weeks before the Athens Olympics, the Indian Hockey Federation decided to appoint Gerhard Rach, as Head Coach of the senior Indian men's team. The decision was pathbreaking, indeed, as Rach was the first foreigner ever to occupy the position which began a trend of sorts.
At Athens in 2004, the Indians finished seventh (just as they did at Sydney in 2000), and soon after, finished fourth in the Champions Trophy at Lahore the same year, losing the bronze-medal match to Pakistan (just as they had done in 2002 and 2003).
Rach decided to move on soon after the Champions Trophy, and since then, several foreign coaches have been at the helm of the coaching fraternity, in India, with none enjoying long stints, until Roelant Oltmans came along and dug his heels in after being appointed as the high-performance director in 2013.
The great Australian master-coach Ric Charlesworth was appointed as a technical director in 2008 but left our shores bitter and disillusioned with the IHF, the erstwhile governing body of Indian hockey. Spaniard Jose Brasa did not last long, either, in spite of his team finishing on the podium at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games of 2010.
Micheal Nobbs helped the Indians make it to London 2012 where they ended up with the wooden spoon after which the Aussie coach had to leave on account of poor health. Dutchman Paul van Ass had a shorter stint than all his predecessors, and it was left to Oltmans to steady the ship before he was too was relieved of his duties last year.
Following a coach swap in May, Hockey India bucked the trend of persisting with foreign coaches and appointed Harendra Singh as chief coach of the Indian men's team - the first Indian to occupy the position since Joaquim Carvalho left his job following India's failure to qualify for the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
Harendra Singh, however, can hardly be described as a new appointee.
Back in 2004, before Rach was elevated to the position of Head Coach, the German was part of the Indian coaching setup, as an assistant along with Harendra, and still cannot comprehend why the former defender was shown the door before the 2004 Olympics.
"Harendra Singh has been with me since I started. Even today, I still don't know why he was replaced before the start of the (Athens) Olympics."
14 years have passed since Rach left his position as Head Coach after India lost the bronze medal to Pakistan at Lahore, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then.
Rehan Butt who scored for his side at Lahore is now the Assistant Coach of the Pakistan team that is in Bhubaneswar - while Harendra Singh is at the helm of an Indian side which nearly beat Australia in the final of the last edition of the prestigious Champions Trophy.
Rach is following the Odisha World Cup closely but is rather sceptical about Germany's chances in spite of their 4-1 win over Holland in the pool match.
"With Germany, you never know - but they do look well prepared and very much focussed."
With regard to India, how has the team evolved over the years and how does Rach look back at his coaching stint in the country?
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Gerhard Rach gets candid about the challenges that he faced as India's first foreign coach, the controversies which seemed to mire Indian hockey and affect their on-field performance at the time, and how he feels Harendra's boys have fared at Bhubaneswar.
Here are the excerpts of the interview:
SK: You coached the Indian team during the 2004 Athens Olympics. What are your memories of the Games at Athens and how satisfied were you with India's performance?
Gerhard Rach: It was, of course, an unforgettable event. Because of me being in charge only for a few weeks prior to the event, and because of problems outside of my sphere of responsibility, it became very difficult to handle. We also had no drag-flicker, as Sandeep Singh, our only drag-flicker, hurt himself four weeks before the Olympics.
On top of that, the team was feeling very insecure and had no real unity because they had not won a single game for a year until my appointment as Head Coach. Under the given circumstances, the result was satisfying.
SK: What were the challenges you faced as the first foreign coach in India? Was language an issue?
Gerhard Rach: Surprisingly, language was never a big issue. Most of the problems came from outside. It was very unprofessional in general according to European standards, as there was chaos in the organization - for example, we were given no video assistance.
SK: India lost to Pakistan in the bronze-medal match of the 2004 Champions Trophy but beat Germany in the pool match. Your thoughts and memories of playing in Lahore.
Gerhard Rach: The performance at Lahore was a great achievement. We played the Dosti series with Pakistan after the Olympic games at which point I had to rebuild the team.
With Baljeet Singh Dhillon, Dhanraj Pillay, Gagan Ajit Singh, and Deepak Thakur not being part of the squad, the average age of our team dropped to 22 years.
With the same team, we finished behind the Netherlands, Spain, and Pakistan at the Champions trophy. Despite a new and young team with spirit and potential being born, the people back home were dissatisfied because we didn't get a medal.
SK: Do you feel the present Indian team is now closing the gap with the Europeans?
Gerhard Rach: The gap has already been closed but the Indians have to become more consistent. Nowadays they are playing modern hockey, and the players have fully adapted to the idea of it.
SK: How do you feel India has performed at the World Cup, so far, and which side would you pick as the favorites?
Gerhard Rach: Australia and the Netherlands are my favorites.
So far, India's performances have been very good for me, not unexpected though. The results have been good, but the inconsistency continues - you could see the inconsistency in the Asian Games.
I think they are well on their way to getting back in the group of the best teams in the world.
I must mention that they have, at this moment, the best-available coach, Harendra Singh, and they should give both the team and him, time to develop.
Head to Sportskeeda to check out the Hockey World Cup schedule for the upcoming matches