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Hockey teams seek foreign secrets of success

Jane Barrett | August 25, 2004 22:01 IST

When India play Pakistan, it is a classic hockey match, their historic rivalry sucking in the whole stadium.

But look to the bench and you see the match also pitches Germany against the Netherlands.

Gerhard RachTired of their losing streaks, both former powerhouses have hired foreign coaches in the hope that their global experience and an objective perspective on the deeply traditional, politics-ridden teams, will restore them to glory.

"For them it's an advantage. I don't know all the politics involved. I just get on with a job -- to get the team to win," said Gerhard Rach, a German hired as India's head coach last month after a string of squabbles.

Rach and Pakistan coach Roelant Oltmans have the tough task of working in nations where hockey is a prime sport so their every decision is the topic of heated debate on the street and in the papers.

Their coaching has already come under scrutiny at home after both Pakistan and India again failed to reach the medal rounds in Athens.

One problem is the language barrier.

"It's hard to get into the soul of the players and for them really to understand through an interpreter. I feel they could play better if I could get through," said Oltmans, who coached the Dutch to gold at the Atlanta Olympics and 1998 World Cup.

YOUNG PLAYERS

Since Oltmans took over in 2003, he has begun to change the way things are done, bringing young players like 22-year-old goalkeeper Salman Akbar to the Olympics where before the places would have been kept for seniors who had worked up the ranks.

Roelant Oltmans That sort of cultural change in a team can only come slowly.

Maurits Hendriks, who won the Sydney Olympics with the Dutch squad, has had to tread carefully in Spain, where he found cultural differences within the country that he had not expected.

To knit together a team from very different regions, he made them take long bus journeys across Spain to open their eyes to their nation, took them up a mountain to talk and asked them if it was more important to be Basque or Catalan or to win a medal.

"If there are things that are holding them back performance-wise but are very embedded in their culture, you have to think twice before changing them," Hendriks said.

A more emotional problem awaited Australian Terry Walsh when he took over the Dutch team for their Athens Olympic challenge.

"The Dutch culture isn't as harsh as the Australian male culture. There's some softness there and that's part of what we've been missing in our play," he said.

The coaches all say training a team with different skills and styles is refreshing and stimulating but however much they said it was just a job as any other, they were coy about how it would feel for their team to beat their homeland on the pitch.

"I don't think too much about that. I can't allow myself to think about it," said Hendriks.

Both Spain and the Netherlands have reached the medal play-offs.


Complete coverage of India's campaign | Athens 2004

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