Saturday, August 25, 2012

Never-ending talk of whether a foreign or an Indian coach is the answer to Indian hockey’s woes

The never-ending discussion about what is the answer to Indian hockey’s woes – should we have a foreign coach or should we plumb for an Indian coach? - gets only animated every time our national team returns from a major tourney defeated, embarrassed and morale severely dented.

The rich legacy of winning eight Olympic gold medals almost works like a ‘firewall’ for our former international greats, who found it hard to swallow that a foreign coach can be a remedy for uplifting Indian hockey.

Illustrious names – Zafar Iqbal, Mohammed Shahid, Jude Felix, Pargat Singh, Dhanraj Pillay Jagbir Singh, Ashish Ballal, Thoiba Singh, MM Somaya, Merwyn Fernandes, Mohinder Pal Singh and Joaquim Carvalho readily spring to mind when we think of our former internationals who could coach the national team. Let’s face it; no one is questioning the pedigree of these former internationals but having them in the ‘hot seat’ is replete with impediments.

And the biggest among them is the status of the sport’s national federation - Hockey India (HI), which is locked in an unbecoming tussle with Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) over which group will run the sport in the country.

To call spade a spade it really does not matter which group is running the sport as far as the players are concerned since the whims and fancies of both these groups have been a ‘big factor’ in many promising careers falling by the wayside.

Given such a scenario, it is difficult to accept how our former international greats would fit in the federation’s scheme of things as coach of the national team. Most of these former greats have played for the country with distinction and would desire a free hand in their bid to deliver the desired results. In India, the federation won't mind one bit to exercise control over the coach and expect him to function as a ‘yes man’ which in turn sows the seeds of a disappointing chapter – which we have been witness to for many years now.

Often, the biggest angst among our former greats (many of them, if not all) is that the federation pays hefty salaries to foreign coaches while our coaches are paid peanuts, which is a fair point. Striking a fine balance is the key and weeding out this enormous disparity in salaries is the way forward.

I am ready to be castigated for this but I am willing to say that foreign coaches have never been given a fair crack of the whip to build a team that can deliver.

Save for the below-par German coach Gerhard Rach (who was a wrong choice in the first place anyway) –  the then IHF appointed him barely three weeks before the 2004 Athens Olympics after it sacked Rajinder Singh to whom the German served as an assistant for a couple of months.

Over the years some of the big names of world hockey were drafted in to resurrect our fortunes but the spectre of red tapism and official mismanagement ensured much of the efforts went down the drain.

Aussie legend Ric Charlesworth was appointed as Technical Advisor of the Indian team in 2008 but he quit within a year of taking up the job, reportedly frustrated at not being given a free hand to oversee the senior team, not to speak of his salary which was allegedly also not paid on time.

Spanish Jose Brasa took charge of the Indian team in 2009 and his eighteen-month stint was the longest any foreign coach has had so far. In fact, Brasa worked well with the team after the 2008 ‘Chile catastrophe’. He guided India to a silver medal and bronze medal finish at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and 2010 Asiad. Inexplicably, Brasa’s contract was not renewed and no one knows why?

Australian Michael Nobbs took over in August 2011 with his stress on ‘attacking hockey’. Surprisingly, Nobbs took charge barely six months before the Olympic qualifiers and probably not many were that optimistic about India making the cut – probably fans’ interest in the sport had dipped substantially after the 2008 Chile shocker even though we made a podium finish at the last Commonwealth Games and the 2010 Asian Games.

The resounding manner in which India qualified for the Olympics led to expectations soaring with India being touted as a medal hopeful – a far cry from what was going through hockey lovers’ mind six months before - we were not sure whether we would even qualify.

However, the wooden spoon at the 2012 London Olympics panned out to be an ‘unpleasant surprise’ with all and sundry calling for Nobbs’ head.

Such a public backlash is not unprecedented  in India – be it a foreign or an Indian coach, this has been the trend – such a backlash lasts for a few weeks and when once dust settles down, nothing changes except a few scapegoats are found and are dealt with as per the federation’s wishes.

So, within six months of taking up as India coach, Michael Nobbs must have realized how things can go horribly wrong in no time. He must be scrutinized for some of his tactics, especially team selection. But if we think letting him go is the answer, I would only say ‘God save Indian hockey’.

The tug-of-war - whether a foreign or an Indian coach - would bring back the glorious days of Indian hockey appears to be an unending one, but on the turf one still harbors hope that the Indian team would recover from the Olympic wounds and come out stronger.

Maybe a return of Indian hockey’s glory days could just put a lid on such incessant talk.
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