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Hockey team trains with hope
June 09, 2004 10:57 IST
India's hockey players have gone into exile in a bid to heal the wounds from a damaging selection row and end a 24-year Olympic medal drought.
Desperate to regain their place in the top echelons of the game, the team will train almost entirely abroad until the competition starts on August 13.
India is still the most successful hockey teams in Olympic history, having won gold eight times.
But since Moscow in 1980, when they won the last of their gold medals, they have left every Games empty-handed.
Their countdown to Athens, with the help of two new German coaching staff, has begun with a specialised 21-day fitness camp in Arizona in the United States to prepare for their robust Olympic pool rivals such as champions the Netherlands and Australia, bronze medallists four years ago.
They will then travel to the Netherlands and Germany for more training and two warm-up tournaments.
Indian hockey officials hope the time away from home will help the players to bond after weeks of controversy over the initial exclusion of experienced striker Dhanraj Pillay.
The 35-year-old Pillay, who has more than 400 caps, is regarded as the face of Indian hockey and is aiming for his fourth Olympics. His exclusion caused a huge, nationwide uproar with former players and the domestic media criticising the move.
The Indian Hockey Federation, which gave no reasons for sidelining Pillay, finally bowed to pressure to draft him into the training squad, but only after a plea by the Indian Olympic Association.
Pillay, who stands out with his trademark long hair, clever stickwork on the pitch and emotional outbursts off it, said his younger teammates made him feel unwanted and head coach Rajinder Singh did not fully back him.
Hockey experts believe outspoken media comments, disputes with coaches and resentment among teammates of his special status had led to Pillay's initial exclusion.
But Pillay, who was India's captain when they won their first Asian Games gold for 32 years in 1998, declared he would put behind him all the problems and strive for gold in Greece.
"I'm happy to be back and I want to use this chance to bring glory to India," a delighted Pillay said before leaving India. "I'm working very well with the youngsters, we motivate each other."
But Rajinder knows it will need more than player bonhomie to succeed in Greece.
"The challenge is to make them reach their peak during the Olympics," he said. "We need to do further work on our defence and midfield, especially in penalty-corners."
The IHF have turned to two German coaches to iron out the flaws by appointing Oliver Kurtz, a striker in the victorious side at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and Gerhard Rach, an experienced German league coach, to the staff.
But Maharaj Kaushik, who was coach of the 1998 Asiad squad, criticised the decision to undertake an intensive fitness regime so close to the Games and said the presence of foreign experts could undermine Rajinder's authority.
"No professional team goes for such physical fitness camps. They play only matches with sufficient breaks as final build-up."
The team will play two four-nation events where they will face strong rivals such as Germany, the Netherlands and Pakistan, but Kaushik said more games were needed.
National selector Gurbux Singh seemed to agree.
"A good beginning is a must in Athens. To be able to do that the team must have match practice. There is no alternative," he wrote in his newspaper column.
"Playing among themselves isn't good enough, it cannot replace competitive hockey."
For India's emotional hockey fans, the more important question about the training programme is whether it will lead to their hero Pillay getting a place in the final squad for Athens.
Twenty-six players are on the training trip and they will be whittled down to 18 next month.