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Shaky future for Indian hockey

Kunal Pradhan | May 18, 2004 11:02 IST

Adolf Hitler was so impressed with sergeant Dhyan Chand in the 1936 Berlin Olympics that he offered him the rank of field-marshal in the German army.

Regarded as the world's greatest field hockey player and nicknamed "The Wizard", the Indian captain politely refused after scoring six goals in his team's 8-1 thrashing of Germany in the final.

Eight years earlier, in Amsterdam, Olympic officials had broken Chand's stick to check if there was a magnet inside.

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Long before cricket took over as India's main sporting passion, the nation's hockey magicians had enthralled the world.

Led by players such as Chand, who retired as a major in the Indian army after scoring more than a thousand goals in a 24-year career, the country won the Olympic hockey gold seven times between 1928 and 1964.

It may just be nostalgia but the only sport apart from cricket that modern-day Indians hold close to their hearts is hockey.

India's success at Athens 2004 will be judged mainly by their hockey performance but with astro-turf militating against their flowing Asian style and the team shrouded in selection squabbles, visions of a podium finish may be just wishful thinking.

In the Olympic qualifiers in Madrid in March, India struggled, particularly on penalty corners, before finishing fourth to qualify for Athens.

Their last Olympic medal was a gold in Moscow in 1980, when leading teams such as Britain, Australia, West Germany and Pakistan were missing due to the United States-led boycott.

Since then it has been a story of decline and disappointment, of bickering and sacked coaches.

INTERNAL STRIFE

With less than three months to go until the Athens Games, wrangling and internal strife are rampant in the Indian team over the initial exclusion from a list of probables of striker Dhanraj Pillay.

Regarded as the face of Indian hockey for more than a decade, Pillay said some of his younger team mates made him feel unwanted on the pitch and coach Rajinder Singh did not fully back him.

Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) officials softened their stance last week, inviting the 35-year-old Pillay to a training camp in Germany and saying a final decision on his selection would be made in late June.

"A player should be able to last 70 minutes for seven games under pressure. That'll be our criterion for selection," IHF president K.P.S. Gill said.

Despite his age, the mercurial Pillay, who is almost as popular as cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and Davis Cup tennis captain Leander Paes, still stands out for his agility and touch.

The long-haired Pillay led India to their first Asian Games gold for 32 years in Bangkok in 1998 and says he wants one last shot at an elusive Olympics medal after India slumped to seventh in his third attempt, in Sydney in 2000.

The uncertainty over Pillay has become a major talking point but IHF secretary K. Jothikumaran said the federation's Athens plans were on target.

"We're satisfied with the way things are going. We're confident that we'll do very well in Athens and, god willing, even win a medal."

PAKISTAN RIVALRY

Even without a medal, Indian fans would be thrilled by a resounding victory over traditional rivals Pakistan.

The two south Asian neighbours have fought three wars against each other since independence from Britain in 1947 and were close to a fourth conflict two years ago over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

But a recent thaw in relations, symbolised earlier this year by the Indian cricket team's first test tour of Pakistan since 1989-90, has improved the political climate in the region.

Intensity on the field, however, remains.

With the Indian cricketers winning their maiden test and one-day series on Pakistani soil this year and the junior hockey team winning the Asia Cup in Karachi last month, Pakistan will be eager for revenge.

But the teams, placed in different groups for Athens, will have to make it at least to the semi-finals for that eagerly awaited match to go ahead.

India are in Pool B with Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and defending champions Netherlands.

Pakistan, who won gold in 1960, 1968 and 1984, are in Pool A with Egypt, Germany, Britain, South Korea and Spain.

"A dream scenario would naturally be India beating Pakistan in the final to win their first gold in 24 years," said Saket Girotra, a New Delhi hockey fan who closely follows the Indian team's matches.

"But, with India looking so unprepared, I wouldn't put any money on it."


Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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