Yet another Olympics is over. As the dust finally settles, the rubble of the Indian hockey campaign is slowly coming into vision.
Over in England, while still in a daze over their best ever Olympic haul – 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze – preparations have begin for the 2016 Rio Olympics. And some hard decisions would be taken over certain performances which didn’t reach the required level in London. UK Sport, the body that distributes elite funding to Olympic sports, has a pot of £508m (Rs 3600 crores) to divide. The assurance required to receive funding is simple – Sports disciplines have to demonstrate that their teams or athletes are cap able of winning medals in four years' time or, failing that, are able to qualify and finish in the top eight.
In other words, if India operated on the same terms, Indian hockey would not get funding. It also means the national team would not have any money for training or travelling overseas. It would have to rely on sponsors; after the 12th place finish, finding hockey players on Mars would be easier than sponsors.
There has been a silence on the hockey front since the team arrived and escaped probably from the back door of the airport (customs officials can be quite cutting and caustic with their remarks when a failed hockey team returns). None of the players have made any statements. After we beat France 8-1 in Delhi to qualify, some of the players even wanted money to talk to the media. Now suddenly all that seems like an eternity back. It would have been good for the sport if a few senior players had come out and spoken about the debacle and the reasons. It would have been a show of courage; at least Bharat Chettri showed up after every match at the mandatory press conference to say: “I don’t know what’s going wrong.” After the sixth defeat, he finally found the answer: “We are not good enough for the Olympics.” But through the six press conferences, one did feel he was straining at the leash to say something. But had the required intelligence not to blurt out something controversial while the tournament was on.
So how and where does Indian hockey travel from here? For the time being, it will be grounded until the players peep out from their hiding holes and exclaim: “Hey guys, looks like the nation has forgiven, sorry, forgotten.” Traditionally, we have forgotten. We forget victories in a matter of days, defeats are faster. For a sport that is fast losing its sheen, if any at all is left, it needs to seriously overhaul its domestic competitions.
It will be good for Indian hockey if the team is grounded for a year while foreign teams are invited to come to India and play us on our home grounds. We might end up at the Melbourne Champions Trophy in December and finish 4th. Unfortunately that will start off the media again – Team back on path and all those kind of headlines without seeing the team lists that would suggest the top teams might have come with curtailed talent.
The national coach Michael Nobbs needs to streamline the domestic circuit and make it into a League A, B and C. We desperately need a three-tier league. The ten top teams play the A, the second ten or eight play B and then the last six or eight play C. All tournaments need to be scrapped. There is no point in having India’s oldest tournament, the Beighton Cup, if no team or player wants to play. Put aside emotion and nostalgia and look to the future. There are scores of tournaments that only line the pockets of the organizers and a few in the hockey federation. In today’s world, Live TV and internet is mandatory to raise the stock of the concerned sport. Let these tournaments organize hockey for the U21, U19, U17 and U15. That way they will give something back to the sport and still remain a tournament.
The federation needs to work out a schedule for the Indian schools with a six-a-side league that is played for six months. It starts off with the zones and four winners from each of the four zones; 16 teams then play the finals. Six-a-side ensures that basic skills like trapping and passing in tight spaces become second nature. Germany’s skills are a result of indoor hockey not hours and hours of astro-turf hockey.
Extreme reactions would harm the national team rather than building it up. It’s not the first time that we have finished last in a tournament. We were 12th in the 1986 World Cup in Willesden. Pakistan was 11th. But in the very next edition, in four years time, Pakistan reached the final in Lahore. We need a target like that for Rio and launch an immediate talent search among juniors for players who have the intelligence and talent to mature in Rio. But first the federation needs to sit with each player and understand what went wrong in London. Post mortems are important as they tell us how the victim was killed and who was the murderer.
It is but natural that it will take some time for trust to come back into the sport. But it needs to be built from the school level. The profile of the sport has to be corrected. It is not a national sport; it’s simply a sport at which we have to win. Most of us get emotional – ‘God, we finished last!!’ ‘Hockey is over!!’ ‘The sport is dead!!’ Sport doesn’t die. It just withers off. A few seasons of a good monsoon and the tree would stand again. It would be good to start the first senior indoor hockey league to be played on a six-a-side format.
Instead of pandering to egos and having state associations that don’t understand hockey on or off the field, clean the stables and bring in younger people. Target 2020 where India finally maintains a position in the top three for an entire year. That would mean, the lessons taught to us in 2012 have been learnt.