S. Thyagarajan

The fecundity of hockey has fascinated chroniclers for a century

Beijing 2008 marks the centenary of field hockey in the Olympics. Introduced in 1908 and ejected after 1920 as a discipline not having the administrative structure, hockey returned in 1928 at Amsterdam, consequent to the formation of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) in 1924. The fecundity since then has fascinated chroniclers.

Every Indian heart today is in anguish after the failure of the eight time gold medallists to make the grade for the first time in eight decades. But it is India that has sustained the vibrancy of hockey as an Olympic discipline from the day it won the gold at Amsterdam.

Enviable ethos

The Indians not only demonstrated to the global audience their inimitable adeptness, artistry, aesthetics and approach work, but also succeeded in establishing an enviable ethos, symbolised magnificently by the wizardry of Dhyan Chand in the pre-independent era, and the classicism of Balbir Singh (Sr) in the post war period.

Documenting India’s dominance from 1928 to 1956, and then briefly in 1964, triggers a sense of déjÀ vu. What a shambles are we in today!

In highlighting India’s golden age, the part of Pakistan in shoring up hockey’s majesty and sophistication in 1960 cannot be underestimated. But the euphoria has now evaporated and Pakistan is struggling to retain its identity.

The European hegemony emerged in 1972 when Germany claimed the gold at Munich in a tempestuous final against Pakistan.

Slowly and inexorably, the balance shifted with the Netherlands and Germany surfacing as a powerhouse followed closely by Australia, the current champion.

It is against this backdrop that one should endeavour to evaluate the emerging power alignment at Beijing. Will the Aussies be on top of the podium again? Teamed with the former champion and the finalist at Athens, the Netherlands, in Pool B, Barry Dancer and his Aussie team will have to beat off a challenge.

Battle of the coaches

It will be a contest between the systems and strategies fashioned by the two renowned coaches, Roelant Oltmans (Dutch) and Dancer.

Both possess seasoned performers. The Australians bank on their golden boy, Jamie Dwyer, who scored the golden goal to realise the dream at Athens. The Dutch lean on Teun di Nooijer and Jeroen Delmee. The duo will enter the record books as figuring in their fourth Olympics in a row.

Nooijer has an impressive record of 380 caps, and skipper Delmee’s tally is 393.

It is foolhardy to look beyond these two teams, although history props up the name of Pakistan. Pathetic recent performances notwithstanding, the enigmatic Pakistanis under Zeeshan Ashraf and striker Rehan Bhat can be a force on a given day.

Britain, which destroyed India’s dream of a place at Santiago qualifier, South Africa and Canada complete the pool.

World Champion, Germany, and Spain constitute the force in Pool A, with New Zealand and Korea forming an unpredictable quotient. Yet to strike gold after 1992 in Barcelona, Germany had to go through the qualifier in Japan.

Chasing a golden dream

No team mirrors the excellence of the coach like Spain. The aura of Maurits Hendriks is all over the Spanish squad that always basks in the incandescence of strikers Pablo Amat, Eduard Tabau and Shanti Friexa. Spain is still chasing a golden dream after two silvers (1980 and 1996).

If consistency has been the virtue with the Kiwis, it is the lack of it that makes South Korea unreliable. The Aussie coach, Adam Commens, who coaches Belgium, is pragmatic enough to estimate an eighth spot for his team.

Kim Ryul, the South Korean coach has given China the inspiration but the expected podium finish may be a mirage.

Germany defends the title in the women’s section which features the triple time champion, Australia, and the one-time winner, the Netherlands.

The dream of Argentina, silver medallists in the last two editions, may well become true in Beijing.

The groupings (figures :

Men: Pool A: Germany (World No. 1) Spain (4), Korea (5), New Zealand (10), Belgium (12), and China (17); Pool B: Australia (2), Netherlands (3), Pakistan (6), Great Britain (8), South Africa (13) and Canada (15).

Women: Pool A: The Netherlands (1), Australia (4), China (5), Spain (8), Korea (9), South Africa (12); Pool B: Argentina(2), Germany (3), Japan (6), New Zealand (7), Great Britain (10) and USA (11).

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