The Game that Wasn’t.

The 8th Junior Asia Cup Hockey tournament came to a close on Sunday with India winning the title for the third time beating arch rival Pakistan 6-2 in the final.

As a whole the tournament was a great success, however with World Cup final positions up for grabs in the quarter finals there was much at stake, especially for teams such as Pakistan, South Korea and Malaysia, whose senior men’s sides had missed out qualification for next year’s Olympic Games. Pakistan for the first time since 1948 – although they did boycott 1980 with many other nations – and South Korea since they hosted the Games in 1988.

In their last Pool game South Korea surprisingly lost 2-0 to Bangladesh. This meant that they would finish third in their pool, and not second as expected. The impact of this result was that Malaysia and Japan who were second and third in their pool still had to play, and a win to Japan would see them move to second and face Korea, whereas a loss or a draw would see them play what appeared an easier game against Bangladesh.

The big issue was this game was played after the South Korea v Bangladesh pool game so the effect of the outcome was clear to all. What ensued was a dull and very uninspiring game. When Japan swept their first penalty corner ten metres wide of the goal and all the players ran back laughing, it was clear they were happy to lose and had no intention of attacking. Luckily for those who did come to watch Malaysia scored first, so Japan did fight back to equalise. Something they did a second time when Malaysia took the lead again.

What was baffling was once Malaysia realised that Japan had no intention of pushing for a win, why they did not opt to thrash Japan. Why they did not decide to try and create as many scoring opportunities as possible. Instead they played their part in one of the most turgid games of hockey ever.

Football made the decision following a similar “non-competitive” match at the 1982 World Cup between Austria and West Germany. The Germans only needed to win by 1-0 or 2-1 for both teams to progress out of their pool at the expense of Algeria who would have become the first African nation to make it out of a Pool at a World Cup Finals. In the 10th minute of that match Horst Hrubesch put the Germans in front. Then nothing happened. Knowing that the scoreline suited both of them, Germany and Austria effectively stopped playing. In the ensuing 80 minutes there were no shots, and barely any tackles. After this FIFA Ensured that all final pool games are played at the same time to ensure that they remain competitive.

The Junior Asia Cup faced a problem with such a decision. Television had committed to show three games a day live. One game being played each day on an adjacent pitch and was not televised. Hockey needs the television coverage as the game continues to try and pull in fans and promote itself. There were many who said based on that commitment what could the sport have done to avoid the performances of Japan and Malaysia?

The answer is actually quite simple. Rather than being so rigid on the timings of the last Pool games the Asian Hockey Federation should have looked at the games and re-arranged the fixtures. India were assured of top spot in their pool as were Pakistan in theirs so their games against China and Oman were irrelevant. What they could have done was move the Malaysia v Japan game to the early match on Pitch one and pushed the Pakistan v Oman fixture back to the time slot that the Malaysia game was scheduled for. That would have seen Malaysia and Japan playing at the same time that South Korea were taking on Bangladesh.

Yes, with modern day technology and the games being on adjacent pitches messages would have come through as to the score in the other game, but it would have meant that both teams would have to try and win if they wanted to avoid South Korea who were expected to beat Bangladesh.

Should the organisers have changed the schedule? There will always be arguments for and against. Yet the sport can do with out what was played out on the pitch, even though the attitude taken by Japan was understandable, and ultimately resulted in them qualifying for the Junior World Cup; Malaysia were not so lucky losing to South Korea. Sport may be tactical but surely the object should be to always try and win and uphold the spirit of the game. This game certainly did not uphold that spirit.

It is an issue that should be addressed post tournament and a decision made to ensure that future tournaments avoid such a situation, for the fans, and also the television broadcasters and fans at home.

The Game that Wasn’t.
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