Player power and powerplay

Chennai Nov. 10. Is player power becoming more pronounced than ever in contemporary hockey? Even as the signals confirm the affirmative to this rhetorical poser, there is a feeling that this is largely due to a bigger exposure, especially in the electronic media. Never in recent times has hockey attracted such a large number of viewers on the small screen, across the globe.

Quite predictably, the media managers in the International Hockey Federation and the new global sponsors for the sport — Robobank, BDO and, the latest, Samsung — are heartened by the new-found interest, especially among the vast audience in the sub-continent and the Gulf.

For over a year now, all important events have been telecast live and the FIH media agents even succeeded in getting noticed by such prestigious networks as Eurosport, which telecast a few matches including the memorable India-Pakistan contest during the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen, apart from having some clippings shown on BBC, Skysport and CNN.

The FIH was keen to get the Germany-Netherlands encounter telecast for the European audience but was totally disappointed by the decision of the former to send only its second string for the competition.

What, however, enthused the FIH administration — striving hard to give hockey a global image though not matching the range and dimension of soccer, tennis and F-1 racing — was the outstanding success in taking the sport to the viewers in the United States and Canada. A combination of networks like Ten Sports, Eurosport and Zee were able to stretch the viewer base to all the major continents.

The media planners in the FIH were overwhelmed by the response from the Indian cable networks for the Champions Trophy after the Indian team had emerged victorious, in Australia and Germany.

Doordarshan, for its part, secured the rights to telecast the recent Asia Cup at Kuala Lumpur when no other channel came forward to sign the contract with the Malaysian Hockey Federation. Needless to say, the viewer response was extraordinary what with India beating Pakistan in the final after losing the league game.

It is not right to conclude that the wide media exposure on television has contributed to a negative impact on the players' attitude, although the spat between chief coach, Rajinder Singh, and captain, Dhanraj Pillay, at the Chennai airport on arrival from Kuala Lumpur after the Asia Cup triumph projected, rather tragically, the strained relationship between the coach and player. In the euphoria of the victory, everything was soon forgotten.

The Dutch crisis

Dutch hockey, perceived to be the most professionally organised and regarded as a model, went through a crisis a few days ago and the impact is likely to be felt for some time. At the heart of the problem was the chief coach, Joost Belaart, who guided the team to the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen. The Dutch, however, failed to win when it mattered most — the European championship at Barcelona.

Forced to fight for an Olympic berth at the qualifier in Madrid in March 2004, the Dutch players became a bit disillusioned with Belaart. A change was suggested but the Netherlands Hockey Board, which had a contract with Belaart, stood by the coach and turned down the proposal. This prompted a protest from the key players — skipper Jeroen Delmee, Guus Vogels, Erik Jazart, Piet-Hein Geeris, Sander van der Weide and the ace penalty corner hitter, Bram Lomans.

Reports suggested that the majority of players were ready to pull out of the squad and the embarrassment was probably too much for Belaart who resigned.

Player power has always been discernible in Dutch hockey which faced a similar situation in the late '80s. Led by skipper Marc Delissen, the players rose against the official coach, Rob Bianchi, a football coach hired by the Dutch administration for hockey. Saying that "hockey was nothing more than football with a stick," Bianchi continued but had to ultimately bow to the pressure, giving way for Roelant Oltmans.

In the aftermath of the Belaart affair, the Dutch media has been speculating that one of the Aussies — Ric Charlesworth or Jim Irvine — may fill the vacancy. Whether a foreign coach would take up the reins in Holland, however, remains to be seen.

A likely fall-out of the Dutch turmoil is the proposed tour of India in January. It was with Belaart that the IHF Secretary, K. Jothikumaran, worked out a schedule of Tests in January. During this interaction, Belaart insisted that the Dutch team would train for a week or so before the series in hot weather, either in Mumbai or Hyderabad. The fate of the series is not known.

Meanwhile, there was also a display of player power in England. The players succeeded in replacing the team chief, Mike Hamilton, and coach, David Vinson, and nominating former star, Jason Lee.

Malaysia also went through a turbulent phase recently when the players ganged up against the administration to ensure that the tenure of German coach, Paul Lissek, was not terminated. After a poor run in the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament and the Champions Challenge at Randburg (South Africa), there was a hue and cry in the media for replacing the coach.

The National Sports Board and Malaysian Hockey Federation agreed to release Lissek and utilise his services as a talent hunter. But the MHF was unable to find a substitute. The players headed by captain, Kuhen Shanmuganathan, threatened to withdraw from the National squad if Lissek was not reinstated. An unprecedented crisis surfaced till the personal intervention from President, Sultan Azlan Shah, ensured Lissek's return to the post of chief coach.

Almost all the major countries have endured the cause-and-effect of player power at some point of time or the other. And, invariably, the players have had their say.

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