France hockey team players celebrate after beating Argentina in their FIH Hockey World Cup group match at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on October 6 (Pic: Hockey India).
June 15, 1982. A landmark day in world football. Etched in history as the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’, it forced a very important change in the format of the FIFA World Cup, in how the last group games of the preliminary round are played, to be exact. At the football World Cup, and continental championships, the final matches of each group are played simultaneously to nullify any chance of teams being able to influence latter stages by playing for a specific result. From a betting/fixing point of view, the old format presented an easy inroad with a football equivalent of insider trading. The International Hockey Federation (FIH), however, seems oblivious to similar possibilities of foul play at its flagship tournament.
At the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar, as is the case in all premier tournaments in the sport, the teams playing their final preliminary group matches as the second fixture of the night go into it with a distinct advantage, being privy of the equations that would see them qualify for crossover matches, or progress into the quarterfinals as toppers.
France vs. Argentina (Group A), on December 6, presented a perfect case in point. The French went in to the game knowing a victory would keep alive their hopes of a knockout berth. Olympic champions Argentina had already secured top spot in the pool and, therefore, had no real incentive to play for a win. France’s 5-3 win is the shock of the tournament so far. England beat Ireland 4-2 (Group B), to knock their neighbours out on December 7. They began the match, however, with the knowledge that a draw could ensure both stay alive in the tournament after Australia decimated China 11-0 earlier in the day. One has to commend the teams for showing the drive to win, but there is always a fine line between sportsmanship and gamesmanship and with the schedule, the FIH is creating a potentially worrisome scenario, a dangling apple of Eden, metaphorically speaking.
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India will enjoy a similar advantage in their final group game, the match against Canada on December 8. Their rivals for top spot in the group, Belgium, play South Africa in the first game of the day, and with goal difference being key in Group C, India can decide their approach to the game based on the result of the first match.
That kills fairplay, doesn’t it? While the prospect of hockey having its own version of ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ looms ever-so ominous.
Football learnt a harsh lesson at the 1982 World Cup in Spain when West Germany and Austria played out a desirable result in Gijon that saw both of them progress into the knockouts from Group 2 at the expense of Algeria, who had beaten the Germans earlier. Algeria and Chile played their last group match a day before Germany took on Austria. The 1-0 German victory over Austria, in which both sides played indifferent football in the latter half, and the storm that ensued, forced FIFA to bring on the changes. While the global body always maintained there was no “match fixing” involved, it’s difficult for impartial observers to put it all down to coincidence. Whether, in fact, a match is fixed through bookmakers’ influence or by mutual understanding between the two teams on the field, the results are the same.
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Hockey, which is struggling to find relevance in the context of football’s preeminence, would do better to learn not just from the success models, but also from the mistakes of the most popular sport in the world.
The justification from the FIH would, possibly, hinge around the fact that major tournaments in hockey are one-city, and thereby one-turf affairs. Then again, we are talking about the global showpiece event in the sport, and we are sure, especially with the money-spinning seen at the Bhubaneswar venue, that the organisers can plan, and can afford a second turf with stands to hold group deciding fixtures simultaneously. The FIH could easily make that a prerequisite while entertaining future bids for World Cups.
India won’t mind the current scenario, though, and coach Harendra Singh had an intriguing smile, and a sly metaphor as well, when he spoke about the game plan the home team will employ against Canada.
“We are sitting on the second floor and they are still in the basement. Let them come to the second floor then we will climb to the third floor,” said the coach, before giving an explanation. “Our goal difference is far better than them. We will see where they are putting us [tomorrow after Belgium play] and then we have to cross that. I sense we are in better position in the pool and I don’t think there is much to think about it (sic).”
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India are in prime position to progress directly to the quarterfinals with a victory over Canada in their final group match. However, with Belgium playing South Africa, the weakest side in the mix, things could boil down to goal difference. India and Belgium are tied on four points at the moment with Manpreet Singh and co. enjoying a five-goal advantage.
Harendra now has the luxury to plan his approach depending on how things transpire earlier in the evening. A small victory for Belgium could give India the luxury of playing just for a win, and try out various tactical experiments, rest players, etc. A draw or loss for Belgium would give India the opportunity to do that and much more.
Harendra hinted as much at the pre-match press interaction.
“The team will play some different kind of hockey tomorrow,” he said. “We will expect some sort of variation, depending on the result and situation.”
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One can only hope they don’t fool around, gloating at the gift due to the oversight by the FIH, and lose a golden opportunity to fine-tune the chinks in their armour. While India have the luxury of knowing what gear they should enter the turf for the match, Canada, who sealed India’s exit at the 2016 Rio Olympics, know they need a win. As the French showed, anything is possible.
Canadians are tricky, best illustrated by their Jekyll and Hyde-ish journey in the tournament so far. They tested and stretched World No. 3 Belgium in the opener, and were held by South Africa in the next match. Judging by results, and the drastically different ways they behaved on the turf for the two matches, one can never be too sure which hat they would wear against India.
While the Canadians are bound to come out with intent, India may not for they would know what they need to do on the night. Though Harendra insisted victory is a priority, the players could end up being a little lax, inadvertently at the very least, if they know that a 100 percent is not required. After all, keeping professional athletes on the boil mentally is a tricky business that can be offset by a lot of factors.
Whatever the dynamics, or the gear in which India play, the fact remains that the FIH, by turning a blind eye toward a loophole for potential manipulation in its tournament format, has left hockey sitting atop a ticking bomb. It also robs fans of contests that define the ethos of sport, where the players follow a script determined by what happens on the turf, and not outside.
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