Patience is a real virtue in modern-day sport, but sadly very few club owners, administrators or even national associations seem to possess this virtue.
In 2005 the Junior Hockey World Cup was played in Rotterdam. In the final Argentina defeated Australia 2-1. Seven of the players from that team were representing the senior Argentinean team when they beat Belgium in the Olympic Games final in Rio to claim the Gold medal for the first time ever.
From Australia’s losing team in that final only four players were in the Kookaburras team in Rio.
In India there has been much doom and gloom because their Olympic Hockey team bowed out at the quarter final stages of the Olympic competition in Rio. So negative has the reaction been that some people have gone as far as to say that the sport is dead. Yet India is the spiritual home of the sport, so how can this be so?
On surface it would appear to be because false hope was created. There were many who, for some reason believed that India genuinely could medal in Rio, despite not having beaten any of the top five teams in the World in normal time in a major tournament in the 18 months leading up to the Olympics.
Certainly the bronze medal in the Hockey World League final was a fantastic result for India. However when analysed was this any reason for hope? India failed to win a game in their pool, yet due to the strange nature of the competition still took part in the knockout stages, where they beat Great Britain, only to lose to Belgium in the semi final. Then in the bronze medal match, which was a thriller, having been 0-2 down they fought back to lead 4-2 with five minutes left. They conceded three goals in the last six minutes to draw 5-5 with the Netherlands, only to beat them in the shoot out.
At the Champions Trophy a month out from the Olympics India did superbly to make it to the final and take World number one Australia to a shoot out, yet In their pool game they failed to beat Germany when 3-1 up, drawing 3-3. They beat Great Britain and South Korea 2-1, but lost to Australia and Belgium.
Sure these were encouraging signs, but these were not the results on which to pin your Olympic dreams.
The truth is these results show that hockey in India is heading in the right direction. The Hockey India League in 2016 produced the best quality hockey yet, and has clearly helped India catch up with the stronger nations around the world.
The proof is in the India under 21 team. They swept all before them at the Junior Asia cup. They scored 32 goals and conceded only nine in six matches. For three years in a row Harendra Singh’s young tyros have made the final of the Sultan of Johor Cup. They have won the tournament twice and lost the final in 2015 in a shoot out.
This team just took part in the Australian Hockey League for the first time. A competition featuring some of the best talent in Australia. Placed in Pool B they topped the Group which included Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT and the Malaysian under 21 team. After five games they had won four and drawn one.
In their semi final they drew 3-3 with Victoria before losing a shoot out 3-4 to the eventual Champions. To show just how special this group of players are, they fought back from 3-0 down at half time to tie up the game. Not many Indian sides would have done that in recent years.
In the Bronze medal match they ended up losing to the very strong New South Wales who had lost to Western Australia in their semi final. Once again they were 0-3 down and pulled a goal back but this time their opponents killed them off 5-1.
What needs to be remembered here is these were boys playing against men, some established at this level for a long time, each team carrying current and former internationals. This was an outstanding performance, one the Malaysian young guns and New Zealand youth could not match. Both of them finishing bottom in their pools, both failing to win a game.
These players are the future of Indian Hockey. These players are the ones who can deliver the long awaited Olympic medal back to the spiritual home of the game.
These are the players who are showing that the HIL has been worth it. They have been exposed to the best players in the World at a young an impressionable age, and they have absorbed what they have learned and are now reaping the rewards. Sure more could be done to help them improve quicker, such as Hockey India asking for reports on every Indian based player from the HIL coaches requesting what skills they need to work on before next years HIL. Too many coaches have said that when they return a year later, they have to re-teach certain skills. That should not be happening if the right structures were in place.
Yet remarkably despite this these players have still performed on the world stage. They still have managed to match many of the teams they play. Come December they are a genuine chance to lift the Junior World Cup as hosts.
India last won the Junior World Cup in 2001 in Hobart. Yet the players from the victorious team did not have the benefit of an Hockey India League in which to hone their skills, and ensure that they continued to develop and challenge for World honours. Sadly internal strife within the game sabotaged their chances.
Now it appears false expectations or impatience, could derail the current crop of talented players. This group could medal in four years in Japan if they continue to develop the way they have in the past few years, if not Tokyo then definitely in 2024.
Yet they need the game to be marketed properly, they need coverage in the media, and they need people to support the team and get behind it over the next four to eight years, and have realistic expectations. As Argentina has shown success does not come over night. It comes through patience and hard work.
Rarely in sport does success come overnight. If you look at Manchester United and the Class of ’92, they, like the Indian Junior team had developed together as a team over a number of years, and had an understanding amongst each other, and a belief in each others abilities. That helped them slip into the first team and bring Manchester United the success that ensued in the following years. There were no selections based on politics, they were all based on merit and consistently delivering where it matters, on the pitch.
These Indian youngsters have done that so far and should be applauded for what they have done, yet sadly so few in India are even aware of their performances. Rest assured these young men are the ones who can deliver the Olympic dream. Stick with them, back them and support them. If they win the Junior World Cup, or even medal then, India has the right to dream of winning Olympic medals again, not before.
The India under 21 Hockey