At the start of 2017 football great Marco van Basten was advocating that FIFA look at adopting many of the rules of field hockey to improve the game as a spectacle. Yet maybe it is time that Hockey looked at adapting one rule from football.
At the Junior Asia cup in 2015 Japan wanted to avoid meeting Korea in the quarter-finals as a loss there would mean that they would miss out on not only a place in the semi-finals, but the prize that came with it, a berth at the Junior World Cup Finals. Malaysia were their opponents in their last pool game. Both teams were level on points, but Malaysia had a superior goal difference, which meant they would finish second in the pool as long as Japan did not win, and Malaysia would meet Korea. Japan, made it obvious that they were not going for victory in the match when their first penalty corner was swept so wide of the mark it defied belief; the giggles as they retreated gave away their tactics. The game ended in a draw, when twice Japan responded after Malaysia had taken the lead. Malaysia played Korea in the quarter finals and lost, and would have missed out on the Junior World Cup in India had Pakistan been issued visas. Malaysia replaced them. Japan qualified for the semi finals and the World Cup and lost the third place play off to Korea.
Fast forward to the South East Asia Games in 2017 and in their final pool game following a draw between Myanmar and Singapore, Myanmar had a chance to qualify for the Gold medal match for the first time in their nation’s history. In their last pool game and needing to win by a big score Singapore could only manage a 3-2 victory over Thailand. This meant that as long as Malaysia did not beat Myanmar by ten goals Myanmar would make history and play for Gold. Malaysia were 2-0 up after the first quarter, 4-0 up at half time and 6-0 up at three quarter time. They scored no goals in the final quarter and clearly took their foot off the gas. The final score was 6-0. We then had the strange sight of the Myanmar players who had been soundly beaten, in tears celebrating a monumental achievement, making it through to the gold medal match. A game they lost 14-0 two days later.
Today in Dhaka at the Hero Asia Cup, India may well hold in their hands the fate of their arch rivals Pakistan when the two sides meet in their final pool match. Following a 2-2 draw with Japan, Pakistan find themselves sitting second in Pool A on four points with a goal difference of plus seven. Japan sit in third place on one point and with goal difference of minus four.
Japan will play host nation Bangladesh in the first game of the day. Bangladesh have been beaten 7-0 by both Pakistan and India, so Japan would be expected to secure a victory and move four points, but they need to win by a handsome margin.
On form of late India would be expected to defeat Pakistan, but as many have stated in games where there is such intense rivalry, such a result can never be taken for granted. However in recent times India have proved a far superior side to their near neighbours. At the recent Hockey World League semi-finals in London they inflicted a 7-1 and 6-1 defeat on the Greenshirts.
This Pakistan side is very different to the one in London, but a similar victory by India is not beyond the realms of possibility. If it did finish 6-1 to India, and Japan matched India and Pakistan by winning 7-0 against Bangladesh, Japan would move to second in the pool and into the play-off pool for the semi-final berths at the expense on Pakistan.
Effectively, just as Malaysia did at the SEA Games India could possibly control whether Pakistan make it through to the next phase of the competition and have a chance of playing in the semi-finals. If they continue to score goals, depending on Japan’s result they could eliminate them. If they simply take a victory and do not go for the jugular, they could help Pakistan through. As many people have said in a game such as this, with such a rivalry, victory will be the only thing on both team’s minds, as this is a game that means so much more than the final standings in the pool. If Pakistan win they will progress anyway, so they need to focus on that, and that alone.
The over-riding issue though is that once again there is the possibility to be able to manipulate a result. To ensure that one team progresses at the expense of another.
To be fair to hockey they are not the only sport where this happens. At the Kabaddi World Cup in 2016, Iran, one of the favourites in the tournament lost in the most unlikely of matches against Poland. To make matters worse they lost by a big enough margin so as to avoid getting a bonus point for losing by less than a set number of points. This loss meant that they came second in their pool and avoided the favourites India in the semi-final. They would instead meet South Korea who had stunned India in the opening match and topped Pool B. Iran beat South Korea in the semi-final, and then lost the final to India.
At the London Olympics we saw Badminton players trying to manipulate results in an embarrassing fashion, and quite rightly those athletes were disqualified. Yet many sporting bodies feel it is entering a very dangerous moral and legal area accusing and then proving that a team has manipulated a result, especially if they have still won their match; If they have lost then usually it is far clearer to all who are watching and follow the sport.
As far back as 1982 Football did their best to stamp out such a situation ever happening again. Following the “disgrace of Gijon,” FIFA changed the way in which its tournaments were structured.
The last game of Group 2 in the opening round of the World Cup had seen Algeria and Chile play their last match the day before. With the outcome of that match already determined, the outcomes were clear. A win by one or two goals for West Germany would result in both them, and their opponent Austria, qualifying for the next round at the expense of Algeria, who had beaten West Germany in the first game. West Germany took the lead after 10 minutes. For the remaining 80 minutes neither side made any serious attempt to score. Post-match both were accused of match-fixing, as fans the world over were in uproar. However as in nearly all of these cases FIFA ruled that neither team had broken any rules. They simply may not have played the game in the spirit that was intended.
From that day on FIFA ruled that the last games in any Pool Matches much be played simultaneously. We even seen most League competitions around the world adopt the same approach with the final game of the season where a Championship or relegation can be affected by a number of results at other games.
Unfortunately, for Hockey on most occasions the venues at which major tournaments are played only have one turf on which the games are played. Laying a turf pitch is no cheap exercise, and laying one to meet international standards and weighing up the use it will have once the tournament is over is one that many Associations cannot justify.
However one feels that the FIH are going to have to start monitoring these key matches much more closely, and if they feel that teams are easing up in order to gain an advantage and then meeting an opponent they feel they can beat, then maybe they need to try and set up an arm of the organisation that helps subsidise artificial turfs to ensure that all international events have two pitches, and that final pool matches can be played simultaneously.
Another challenge to the sport will be when the Pro-League starts, which is due to be launched in January 2018. How will the last round of games in this tournament be played? With countries playing in different time-zones this needs to be taken into account as again some teams going into their last game may have the advantage of knowing what result they need to finish in the top two and contest the final.
Who would be a sports administrator? Sadly sport now is about winning, and money. Success brings with it money to a national association in terms of sponsorship and government funding as well as extra media coverage, and the players rewards also often increase if they are successful. Therefore team administrators and players are always going to try and chose the easier path to the Gold medal match, and if that means winning 3-0 instead of 6-0 many teams will take that option.
Sadly, as we heard in local sport, some teams have in fact opted to field a weakened side to avoid success, simply so that they do not have to pay their players the extra wages!
Either way the fans and supporters are the ones who are the ones to suffer. Also suffering is the integrity of the match and ultimately the sport.