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Busting the myth of the "heroic" 1980 Gold: Why blame present coaches when India hasn't reached the top in the last 40 years?

FEATURED COLUMNIST
Feature
829   //    08 May 2018, 21:08 IST

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The expectations need to be toned down and a patient approach adopted

We have all heard the tales about the glorious past of Indian hockey and the golden run of the legendary greats.

It was a magical spell indeed while it lasted, the kind of which has never been witnessed in the game again. The men behind the six consecutive Olympic golds which India won have attained legendary status and deservedly so.

But is it right to compare players of the present generation with the legends of old, and belittle the achievements of the former, since on the face of it they pale in comparison?

More importantly, the magnificent past in question is not remotely recent, but quite ancient now, if truth be told.

Did India really deserve the 1980 Olympic gold?

Vasudevan Bhaskaran has been immortalised in the annals of Indian hockey history as the captain of the team which won India's last gold medal (until date) in the 1980 Olympics.

Bhaskaran's service to the game and the country as a player and coach has been exemplary. Few can deny, however, that the politics of the time had a role to play as well in India's triumph.

At the height of the Cold War, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, several Western nations turned their backs on the Moscow Olympics.

The giants of world hockey including Australia, West Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Argentina, and Malaysia decided to boycott the Games.

The lineup which finally competed included Spain, hosts Soviet Union, Poland, Cuba, and Tanzania none of whom apart from Spain were established hockey powers.

India beat Spain 4-3 in the finals in a close game to strike gold in Moscow and the Indian media have been singing hosannas in praise of the victorious outfit ever since. Post every Olympic Games, successive Indian squads have been derided for their failure to match the achievements of Bhaskaran and his team.

Neither the media nor hockey pundits ever gave a thought to the fact that the teams which played the Games since 1980 did so against far more formidable opponents who were the major powers of world hockey.

The AstroTurf surface changed the way hockey was played forever and benefited the European teams whose speed and stamina was no match for the Indians who until that point relied purely on mesmerising skills and stick-work.

Post the 1984 LA Olympics when India failed to qualify for the semi-finals, captain Zafar Iqbal was made the scapegoat and all hell broke loose when India finished last in the 1986 Hockey World Cup in London.


The
One of the greatest
centre forwards
of all time, the late Mohammad Shahid

Talented players over the years like the late Mohammad Shahid, Merwyn Fernandes, Maneyapanda Muthanna Somayya, Pargat Singh, Jude Felix, Harendra Singh, Dhanraj Pillai, and many more could never savour the taste of World Cup glory in spite of their individual brilliance.

Indian hockey had gone off the national sporting radar for a good two decades, with the sport and the beleaguered players meandering on the edge of oblivion.

It has taken a concerted, determined, and tireless effort for around 30 years now for hockey to reclaim a good share of it's lost pride.

Many talented players and coaches never got their share of respect or recognition simply because they were playing at a time when the results were not "satisfactory'' in the eyes of the media and the hockey federation.

Satisfactory, however, is a relative term and assumes logical significance only when measured against a recent and reasonable yardstick.

When did India really dominate World Hockey?

India beat hosts the Netherlands in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and astoundingly won gold in 1932, 1936 (the Games were not held in 1940 and 1944 during the Second World War) 1948, 1952 and 1956 as well.

The Indian hockey team was ethnically and culturally as varied as the country itself with a large number of Anglo-Indians players.

Post-independence, several of them moved to Western Australia and laid the foundations for the rise of hockey in their new land. Former Aussie drag-flicker and India's Analytical Coach, Chris Ciriello's grandfather Rudolph Pacheco played for India before migrating Down Under.

Several players moved to the other side of the border and the beneficiaries Pakistan were the first nation to challenge India, wresting away the gold medal from the six-time defending champions in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

India won gold in 1964, but from then on, never ever dominated the game as they had until that point.

India failed to reach the final even once until 1980 and since then have not even qualified for an Olympic semi-final (and on most occasions have not even got anywhere close).

India won the prestigious World Cup in 1975 and have never ever reached even the semi-finals of the event ever since.

The Champions Trophy has been considered to be the most elite and tough tournament in the hockey calendar. India, who boast of being the greatest ever side have never won the Champions Trophy, with a silver in 2016 being their best performance.

So, is it fair to say that the "glorious past" of Indian hockey dates back close to half a century ago, and 2016 has been one of the best years ever in Indian hockey history?

Slow and steady rise with Oltmans being the savior

In fact, 2016 was a landmark year in Indian hockey and Roelant Oltmans was the architect of the same.

Numbers do not lie and statistics point to the fact that despite India's inability to make it to the last four at Rio, Indian hockey had achieved more than it had done in the previous three decades.

Does that not make Roelant Oltmans a hero who deserved to be feted with high honors instead of being unceremoniously fired?

Sjoerd Marijne was the first coach in the annals of Indian hockey history who dared to play an international tournament (Azlan Shah Cup) with a second team to test his bench strength and give some much-needed exposure to the youngsters, much like heavyweights Australia and Germany have done in the past.

Yet, a failure to achieve a podium finish at Gold Coast led to his downfall.

On what basis does Hockey India believe that India can suddenly win a medal in every major event?

When, in conscious memory, have India consistently beaten the top teams like Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Pakistan (prior to 2017)?

In the late 1980's South Korea, emerged as a new hockey power and upstaged both India and Pakistan.

In the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, India finished a dismal fourth! India's Asian supremacy was being challenged as well.


Why is India expected to win medals consistently when they have rarely done so in the last four decades?

Hockey India has been firing coaches at the drop of a hat as if the Indian team has suddenly gained the proficiency to beat the very best teams in the world and attributes their failure to the inefficiency of the coaching staff.

Don't we need to end the slumber and smell the coffee?

The players and coaches have made a mammoth effort against all odds for India to break into the elite six in the hockey world.

Just hanging on to the No.6 spot is an immense challenge for now. The teams ahead of India are Australia which has dominated world hockey for decades, as have the Netherlands and Germany who have been formidable, and two new powerhouses in the form of Argentina and Belgium.

Argentina seems to be having a problem a little similar to India with Carlos Retegui leaving the squad only to return resulting in a bit of chaos in their camp.

The other top teams look as solid as ever and it will take a while for India to raise their game to break into the top four. Patience, perseverance, and a long-term vision is the key.

Proceeding with an illusion that India can end with a podium finish in every single tournament after having painstakingly risen from the abyss is fanciful and far-fetched.

Hiring and firing coaches by the dozen simply cannot conceal the reality that Indian hockey is on a slow but steady upward path and trying for force the pace with an iron fist can result in a tragic and disastrous downward spiral.

Indian football fans are realistic about India's chances, well aware of the distance to the top and cheers every small move up the ladder.

Perhaps it's time that Indian hockey fans do the same and acknowledge the fact that while the players and the coaches are doing all they possibly can, it requires a mammoth effort to progress in the face of stiff competition and the team need support irrespective of the results.

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