July 06, 2020
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Did India Play Hookey?

A dubious match raises a stink, and puts a dampener on the Indian team's recovery trail

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Did India Play Hookey?
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THERE was deathly silence on the 14th and 15th floors of Hotel Melia in Barcelona on the night of January 28. A few strains of popular Hindi film songs floated softly from the rooms where the Indian hockey team was staying. The mood was low. Very little conversation among men who have been together for months on end. Each in his own thoughts, perhaps mulling over their shockingly low-key performance that afternoon which had triggered off much speculation and suspicion.

 India and Malaysia had played out a goal-less match on the final day of the eight-nation Olympic hockey qualifying tournament in Barcelona. The result earned Malaysia a berth in this summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta ahead of Canada who were very much in the running for one of the five available berths. As the team members and officials wept unashamedly, the Canadians kicked up a storm, charging India and Malaysia of contriving a draw.

 "We had prepared long and hard for the qualifier. Hockey is not a major sport in Canada and had we qualified for the Olympics, we could have expected Government support and sponsorship. Okay, so we did not make it to the Olympics, but we do mind the manner in which we were pushed out by India and Malaysia. We believed that the Olympics is all about integrity and sportsmanship," an emotional Shiaz Virjee, coach of the Canadian team, said after the game. "We have been hearing rumours in the past 24 hours that something like this (a drawn match) would happen. We will take it up with the International Hockey Federation (FIH)," he added.

And so, Field Hockey Canada (FHC) filed an official complaint with the FIH alleging collusion between Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) officials and their Malaysian counterparts, as well as naming six players—skipper Pargat Singh, Mukesh Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Harpreet Singh, Baljit Singh Saini and Baljit Singh Dhillon—as co-conspirators. In turn, the FIH constituted a five-member disciplinary committee which will meet on March 2 at Brussels, Belgium, while seeking a written explanation from the IHF to be submitted before February 25. The IHF and the six players have denied all charges, and are contemplating legal action, following a meeting in New Delhi on February 21.

The Canadians, in support of their allegations, have provided match statistics to the effect that the Indians, during the January 28 game, did not force a single penalty corner in the second-half and did not enter the Malaysian striking zone even once during this session of play, leading to the belief that the players did not make sufficient effort to score goals. In the event of the FIH upholding the complaint, the penalty could range from a simple fine to time-bound suspension of both India and Malaysia. It would mean having to forfeit the Olympic berths. But at the moment, it is difficult to visualise the FIH taking a line as extreme as disqualification. After all, both FIH President Etinne Glichitch and Secretary-General Els van Breda Vreisman have gone on record saying that they did not 'see' anything amiss in the game. In fact, both expressed satisfaction over the manner in which the match was conducted. Unlike the International Football Federation (FIFA), the FIH has not been called upon to decide on issues such as 'match fixing' or 'bribery'. Thus, their actions would be watched with keen interest.

In the present instance, going by the on-field proceedings, it is technically impossible to prove that the game was 'fixed' as is alleged by the Canadians. Statistics are not always an accurate gauge of the trend of a match. Observations such as 'insufficient effort' are highly subjective and debatable.

With the intention of ending the match in a draw, which would give them the one point that would ensure their qualification to the Olympics, the Malaysian team packed its half of the field with all 11 men, and made very few attempts to attack.

On their part, the Indians appeared decidedly lethargic. Gone was the dash and determination that had marked their performances in the previous six games. On the contrary, they played into the Malaysian hands by resorting to endless back pedalling and by passing the ball among themselves. The explanations offered for the surprisingly poor show were that the players were very tired as they had been playing non-stop for the past six months and were short on motivation since they had already qualified.

Speculation about possible 'fixing' first began in Kuala Lumpur during the six-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament, last October. The draw for the Olympic qualifier had just been made public with Malaysia and India being scheduled to play each other on the last day of the tournament in Barcelona. Some interested but irresponsible officials whispered about the possibility of India returning a 'favour' to Malaysia, should such a need arise in Spain.

The 'favour' concerned Malaysia beating Belgium by a two-goal margin (5-3) in the 1991 Olympic qualifier at Auckland and thus 'helping' India make it to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. That result saw India edge out Belgium on goal-difference. The Malaysian victory generated much publicity, for the King of Malaysia had apparently telephonically 'ordered' coach Terry Walsh to field the 'besteleven' so as to beat Belgium and smoothen India's passage to the Olympics. The King, who is also president of the Malaysian Hockey Federation, is known to have had a soft corner for India.

The Canadian charge of 'money transaction' between the Indian and Malaysian camps lends another twist to the episode. If there is any truth to the allegation, then it is quite possible that it would not have taken place in Barcelona. The fact that some of the Indian players have been engaged in the Malaysian league as professionals has led to the speculation that the 'goodies', would have been distributed in Malaysia. However, in the absence of any corroborative evidence, the 'money angle' must be consigned to cold storage.

 In Barcelona, the speculation about the likelihood of a 'fixed match' between Malaysia and India grew in intensity—particularly after India, the Netherlands, Spain and Britain qualified, leaving Malaysia and Canada to fight it out for the fifth berth. The Melia Hotel, where all the teams were housed, along with umpires and other officials, was rife with speculation.

 The Indian players as a team refused to talk about the match 'on record'. The mood, right through the return trip was sombre and the few attempts at humour fell flat, though some players did put on a brave front. Chief national coach, Cedric D'Souza, appeared to take the goalless draw to heart and lambasted the players for their performance during the post-match press conference. It is hard to recall a match in the past two decades where an Indian team has played as badly, save the goalless match with a highly defensive France in Auckland in 1991. The Barcelona issue has now boiled down to technicalities. But as Canadian coach Virjee told Outlook, they will not let the issue go by without a fight. "We have gathered evidence. We know for a fact that a lot transpired between some of your players and the Malaysians. We are also aware that the Malaysians had contacted the British team asking them to drop a point, but it was rejected (Britain won the game 3-2). We will go all the way. We may not win, but there is enough information for others to form an opinion," Virjee said.

But there are precedents: in the goalless match between the Dutch and the Germans in the 1994 World Cup at Sydney, and the 1-1 draw between the Dutch and Belgians in the European Championships at Dublin last year. In the first instance, India lost a chance of a semi-final placing as did Spain in Dublin. At Sydney, Germany went through the match without a single penalty corner. And the Dutch beat Belgium 9-4 in the Barcelona qualifier.

However, regardless of what transpires on March 2 in Brussels, the Barcelona episode has put Indian hockey under a cloud at a time when its fortunes were on the upswing.

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