'India is the dream destination for any coach,' says Siegfried Aikman who guided Japan to a historic Asiad gold
Bitter and shattered following their team's shock defeat in the Asian Games semifinals, several Indian hockey fans decided against watching the summit clash at Jakarta - all those who did, however, were treated to a humdinger which they are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
Quite incredibly, a dozen goals were scored in regulation time with both finalists striking six apiece, and unwilling to concede an inch in a contest that had all the makings of a suspense thriller.
Harendra Singh had picked Japan as the team to watch out for
Razie Rahim who stunned the Indians with a last-minute strike opened the scoring for Malaysia who went on to take a 4-1 lead at one point in the second quarter. The Malaysians were on the verge of history as they led 5-2 with eleven minutes to play but the Japanese scored three goals in just as many minutes to restore parity.
Stephen van Huizen's side then took a 6-5 lead yet again in the 58th minute only for Japan to find an equalizer off a PC after a dramatic referral in the very last minute - and goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam who stood like a rock against the Indians in the semis, was unable to repeat the magic in the shootout.
Both Sakura Japan and Samurai Japan (the women's and men's teams respectively) accomplished a rare and unprecedented golden double at the Asian Games - a feat hitherto achieved by only the South Koreans at their peak in 1986 and 1994.
As far as Harendra Singh's boys were concerned, the entire universe seemed to go topsy-turvy in the space of just over two minutes but the Indian coach can surely find solace in the fact that his one-time guru feels that his team were the best side in the competition.
It is strange indeed what a single loss can do to a side, as the same experts who had lauded the team selection post the Commonwealth Games now seem to inexplicably feel otherwise, but the man who guided Japan to their historic maiden gold feels the Indians were far superior to the rest of the field at Jakarta.
While former players, coaches, and hockey experts in India touted Pakistan and South Korea to be the teams who were capable of challenging India, Harendra Singh picked Japan as the side to watch out for - with good reason too, as he has been tutored by coach Aikman whose great-grandfather, incidentally, was born in India.
Harendra's boys beat the eventual gold medalists 8-0 in their pool match and pumped in a massive 81 goals along the way but Seigfried Aikman feels that even without the statistics, the Indians have come a long way in the last ten years.
"Even without the numbers and the results, India was the best. The match in which they beat us was a group match, and we played a different strategy than what we would have adopted in a knockout match - still, the 8-0 margin was too much."
"India has worked almost 10 years now to build up their team, and they grew step by step with huge support to have come where they are now with regard to their fitness, basic skills, and tactical awareness. They also play many more high-performance matches than all the other participants, and this enables them to play at a much higher pace."
Could the Japanese have captured gold if they had met India instead of Malaysia in the finals?
"We tried to close the gap but because India lost the semifinals, we will never know how we would have done against them in the finals. One thing is clear for me - we were ready for them. But again, I can’t prove it," says the Dutchman who has worked with Den Bosch club, at home, in the past.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, Aikman who is also a coach educator with the FIH (International Hockey Federation), looks back at what was truly a memorable outing for his side, assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Indian team, and dwells on the possibility of a coaching job in India at some point in the future.
"We knew after the draw that we would not be meeting India in the semifinals"
SK: Not many expected Japan to take home the Asian Games Gold medal. At what point did you feel that your team was a serious contender for the title?
Aikman: We were prepared to win a medal at the Asian Games. That was our target. We planned a year's program, and our official target was a top-4 finish, knowing that once you reach the semifinals, anything would be possible.
Certainly, (we knew we had a chance) when we received the draw because then we knew that we wouldn’t meet India in the semifinals. They are the strongest and highest-ranked team in Asia.
SK: What factors do you feel contributed to your team's historic gold medal and what does the win mean for Japanese hockey?
Aikman: We would not let ourselves down. We had a perfect platform to show ourselves, and show the progress we made. The players understood that, and my coaching was focused on doing what we had practiced, and to keep it very simple because that we always can do successfully.
Our plan, preparation, our choices, and the belief in our qualities, together with our fighting spirit and a never-give-up attitude worked, but also our tactical choices in the important matches against Korea, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
The win means a lot for Japanese hockey because, for the first time, men’s hockey was national news and still is. The hockey world is excited and energetic. People believe that we can achieve results because we proved it this year. It was our first ever win over Pakistan and Korea. Winning important tournaments where these teams are participating in gives us a boost. Our players are wanted in international competitions.
The foreign press is interested in Japanese hockey. Everything shows that hockey has become a serious sport here. That doesn’t show in the way we are facilitated but maybe that will come.
SK: How tough will it be for Japan to reassert their supremacy in the Asian Champions Trophy?
Aikman: It’s not something we are aiming for. We don’t have 6 players from the Asian Games with us because they play in foreign leagues, and the Asian Games was a major tournament for us.
We are preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and we are trying new young players. We want more competition in the team and more options to choose from. For us, it is more important that we can improve, and that our new players can deliver and learn - they are allowed to make mistakes.
We will have a short 4-day camp before leaving for Oman. The players had domestic tournaments to play and were not available for the National team. We don’t have all the professional players but we have to get the maximum results from what we have. We are used to that and will do it again.
"India dominated at Jakarta but are vulnerable under pressure"
SK: How would you assess the Indian team's chances at the forthcoming World Cup?
Aikman: Well, India has the home advantage, they are a good and strong team, who are doing well with this leadership. See the Champions Trophy and the way they played the Asian Games. They dominated but they are vulnerable under pressure.
If they can manage that, I have no doubt that they have a good chance to do well but at the same time, in the top 10, everyone can win against each other, and that might happen too at the World Cup. For me, India is one of the gold medal candidates.
"Up North, a coach from the South may need to work with players who do not speak Tamil"
SK: Culturally, how difficult is it for a European coach to adapt to an Asian environment – do you feel language can be a barrier? Given your Indian roots, if you are offered a coaching job in India at some point in the future, would you accept?
Aikman: Well yes, there is a language barrier which makes it more difficult but on the other hand, the contact that one has with the group is what matters.
I strongly believe that Asia needs a good coaching structure, many coaching courses, coaches who share knowledge, who invest in their leadership, in Sports Science, and on a strategy based on changes as our sport develops continuously.
It has to be faster, decisions have to been made in a short time. With a good coaching structure, it will be possible to spend more quality time in the development of hockey - no high-performance hockey is possible without development and no development without high performance. This is why both should get equal attention.
For a European coach, it’s a challenge to adapt, but that is for all coaches in my point of view. The coach should also invest in understanding the culture and can do that by studying what is written about each country and discuss this with his staff and players, and of course, he will make mistakes but that everyone has to do.
In India, a coach from the South has to do adapt when he has to work in the North with players who do not speak Tamil and vice versa. There are always cultural differences and they can be bridged if one invests.
I would consider (an India stint) but it depends on circumstances although it’s a dream for every coach to coach the Indian teams - it must be the right time to do so. I would certainly take it seriously.