Siegfried Aikman interview: Japan boss on India's obsession with changing coaches, Asian hockey being at all-time low and more
Japan coach Siegfried Aikman on Indian hockey's obsession with changing coaches: 'The King is Dead. Long Live the King'
Aikman says Asian hockey is at an all-time low. 'Only India is in the top ten. The rest are all struggling,' he says.
The Japanese team has no funding. Till only recently, the players who attended selection camp had to pay for their travel and boarding also.
Even Aikman wants to coach India, but 'not at the moment' he says.
The lobby of the Impiana Hotel is cave-like ― dark, with scattered, worn-out sofas placed in front of the reception. Or as Siegfried Aikman points out ― like an unstructured hockey team. We choose the end of the lobby, right next to the escalator. It’s a quiet day at the hotel, home to the six teams playing for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, the prestigious, annual invitational tournament.
Aikman looks hung-over. He usually gives that impression. Always in a black T-shirt with Mizuno embossed below the left shoulder. Mostly unshaven. Yes, he does shave. But coaches are allowed that freedom. They think, are cerebral (we believe that!) are constantly looking for weaknesses, trying to seize that moment where a match is turned upside down, poring over data and visuals to understand the opponent or the other coach, or gauge cultural and social issues, or get under the skin of 18 very different individuals in order to try and win constantly when the truth is only one team wins a tournament, whichever it is. It’s a hard job. So, in all that, where the hell do you get time to put razor to skin. And then there is ambition. Without that, no coach is a coach.
“I am ambitious,” says Aikman. That’s his first line. Good he said that in case we forgot he is the man who only six months back did what no team outside of Pakistan, India and South Korea had done ― win the men’s Asian Games hockey gold medal. Trailing 2-5 in the 4th quarter of the final against Malaysia, any coach would have given up, any team would have believed it was an impossible task. Aikman roused his boys. They drew level at 5-5, lost the lead again at 5-6, drew again, and beat Malaysia in the shoot-out.
It was fantasy stuff. A game that would have been better played on a console than an artificial pitch. Aikman still lives that moment. It’s the smile which says it all. Speak about world rankings and there is a pause. “The world rankings don’t show the calibre of the team,” says the coach of a team which sits at 18th spot. “It bothers the players. Rankings get sponsorships. Better teams invite us. When was the last time India invited us?”
But Aikman doesn’t sit and play the blame game for too long. “In Japan, the Asian Games is not a big deal. When we flew back to Japan after winning, there was nobody at the airport, except a few officials. I could see a few players were upset. They must have wondered about the sport.
“But I think that was good. I told the team appreciation won’t come for free. You got to earn it. Be ambitious. Act as a champion. Win big.”
The Japanese team has no funding. Till only recently, the players who attended selection camp had to pay for their travel and boarding also. Universities didn’t let students go for camps because ‘hockey’ wasn’t important. And those in jobs needed letters before their companies let them go and that too without pay.
Now the team has a sponsor. The insurance company Sompo ― also the women’s team sponsor ― is now willing to open the purse a bit wider to accommodate the men. Till before the Asian Games, the media used to come, watch the women’s hockey team train and then when the men’s team came on, they usually walked off.
Now they report on the team. Aikman says, “It’s about belief, conviction and getting there step by step. It’s all about high performance planning. Recently we beat Argentina. And we will now focus on qualifiers in Bhubaneswar because winning there would mean more world ranking points.”
India and Japan are tipped to play the final at Bhubaneswar. Japan has already qualified for Tokyo Olympics as the host. Winning the gold at Asian Games then ended the back-door entry argument.
For a man whose great grandfather came from Lucknow and great grandmother was from Bihar (they met on a boat to Surinam), India will always have a soft spot. Pakistan too. “Without both these countries, hockey won’t live. Pakistan is needed at the top level. They aren’t playing any tournaments and now they might even slip to 20th in the world rankings.”
Aikman says Asian hockey is at an all-time low. “Only India is in the top ten. The rest are all struggling.”
Pakistan are at 12th, Malaysia 13th, China 14th, South Korea 17th and Japan 18th. For a number of years, Korea were always in the top six.
But what boggles Aikman’s mind is India not playing the Pro-League. He terms the decision as ‘stupid’. “The Pro-League would have done the same that Hockey India League did for Indian hockey. It’s unbelievable that when an Indian is the FIH President, India are not playing the Pro-League. Look at the number of top-class matches India would have played, the number of players you could have tried against various nations. Spain were struggling in the World Cup, but they are playing well now. These boys would have grown in stature. These matches are high-intensity and it would have removed the nervousness. Every match is a knock-out.”
Aikman shakes his head. You don’t have to ask him. But it’s clear that he would have loved Japan to be a part of the Pro-League. But then he says it: “Pro-League is for the rich. Instead of closing the gap, the league widens it.”
With Aikman, there is no maybe. No weather permitting. His answers may seem rehearsed. No pauses. But he hasn’t practised his lines. He is clear on what he wants to say and convey. No holding back. He speaks on the India World Cup selection and how hockey is changing on a tournament to tournament basis.
“I understand what everybody felt when Rupinder Pal Singh and Sardar Singh were dropped for the World Cup. In fact, Sardar was pushed into retirement. Don’t take me wrong. I love the guy. He is an amazing player. But the mistake was not to speak to him. Between the 2014 World Cup and the 2018 edition, the game has changed completely. The sport is pro-attack, and high-risk, demands high fitness and is a combination of defending and attacking. Sardar is a technical player, all skill and finesse. He didn’t fit into the system. But treat him with respect. Give him the retirement he wanted. But don’t drop him. He didn’t deserve it.”
“Rupinder scores goals. But he is not your fastest player in the defence. He makes mistakes. And in today’s hockey, you can’t afford that. Some players may not be visible in the team but they are the workload players. They do the dirty work ― attack, defend, pass. Nobody bothers about them because they won’t score. Like your number 17 (Sumit). He keeps running. But the forward gets the credit or the PC flicker. Do you credit the injector and the stopper? No.”
At the end of the 2014 World Cup when Australia won back-to-back titles, Ric Charlesworth before leaving as coach decided to drop Jamie Dwyer from the team, the five-time world player of the year. It led to speculation on Ric’s and Dwyer’s relationship. Ric was quite clear in a media report saying: “The 35-year-old's (Dwyer’s) form and durability is no longer up to standard.”
Graham Reid brought back Dwyer for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Australia finished 6th. For the first time in 44 years, they finished outside of the semi-finals and for the first time since 1988, they didn’t win a medal. While nobody blamed Jamie, but the reference point was quite clear.
“It’s always about the team,” says Aikman. “And the coach has a final say because it’s his team. He will fail and win with the team. Look at the 2018 World Cup final. Both the teams (Belgium and Holland) didn’t want to lose. Now in the Pro-League, there is no chance of that. It’s constantly changing. You need to have players like that. Mentality, attitude, skills ― hockey doesn’t remain the same.”
On the Harendra Singh sacking issue, Aikman sides with Harendra. “He did a good job. Netherlands was the luckier team in the QF. But India has to grow up. You cannot keep complaining about the umpiring. You are the stars. Behave like a star. Don’t create enemies in your mind.”
Aikman speaks about family bonding, cultural values, commitment, security when the question of the ‘right’ coach crops up. “Isn’t the coach like your father? It’s like constantly changing your father. Indians love strong family bonds. But here there is no security, no trust.”
He extends that to the team, saying that to remain connected requires that bond. “Stand by each other, no blame games, fight for the other but as of now, I don’t know if it’s true or not. I heard, like so many others that the players didn’t stand by Harendra. That was sad. For Hockey India to sack Harendra, I think it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”’
Aikman has heard that Reid is on his way to India. He laughs. “You would know better,” he says. He is enjoying the moment. India about to get another coach. Another chapter or an unfinished one. He is still smiling. Aikman’s smile wraps itself around the sarcasm making the other person feel a bit better. It’s not to make you squirm. He keeps you comfortable, milking you for nuggets of information. “C’mon, don’t tell me, you don’t know?”
“It’s a merry-go-round. No? The King is dead. Long live the King. How long will this King last (If it’s Graham Reid)? If you don’t qualify for Tokyo, there will be a new King.
“How do you deal with this? Every time you restart. It makes it more and more difficult.”
Even Aikman wants to coach India. “Not at the moment,” he says. “I am fully committed to Japan and I have unfinished business with the team. We can do wonderful things at the Olympic Games. And we are training for that only.”
The parallel he draws of India is with Barcelona and Real Madrid. “Every coach wants a shot at Barcelona and Real Madrid. Every coach believes they will do it. They know India’s skills. Some of the world’s most talented players are here. And every coach coming in, believes he won’t fail. Each of us believe we won’t be fired.”
Aikman’s team meeting is approaching. With the Samurai, the Dutchman is creating his own parallel universe. Training, adjustments, he has the luxury of tweaking constantly till he arrives at that pattern where he believes Japan might have a shot for the podium in 2020. Their ranking belies that belief. In ambition lies hope. Aikman walks away. Calling on his cell to tell his team he is on his way. After 2020, King Aikman in India. No? Perhaps? Well, let’s not go down that road.
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