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October 27, 1999

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Euro power

Cedric D'Souza

This year's European Championships were staged in Padova, Italy, about 60 miles away from Venice. The settings were picturesque and the hockey dished out was of the top drawer. For me, it is the teams and coaches from this zone that produce the most tactical and modern hockey as compared to the rest of the other zones.

How do I come to this inference? Well, one just has to dwell on the happenings of the last four years to see that every major international tournament has produced a winner from this zone.

Give credit where it's due and acknowledge class when visibly apparent. Do spare a moment to analyse the table below. Am sure you too will be convinced and agree with my findings and assessment.

Year Tournament Winner Runner-up
1994 World Cup The Netherlands Pakistan
1995 Champions Trophy Germany Australia
1996 Olympics The Netherlands Spain
1996 Champions Trophy The Netherlands Pakistan
1997 Champions Trophy Germany Australia
1998 World Cup The Netherlands Spain
1998 Champions Trophy The Netherlands Pakistan
1999 Champions Trophy Australia Korea

The above table cleary shows that apart from the most recent Champions Trophy, every winner has come from Europe.

What makes the Europeans tick? How do they manage to maintain a distinct level of consistency?

Well, although they are blessed with superior physical attributes, I sincerely do believe that it is their knowledge of the modern game coupled with their uniform structure, both in administration and coaching, that it the key to their success. Systematic, but realistic, planning from the grass-root level to the national team is another aspect of their management skills. The hockey board leaves the running of the game in the hands of professionals - be it former players or people with the right credentials. Needless to say, every one is paid for his inputs, thereby making one accountable for all actions.

Well, let's get down to brass tacks and talk about some of the teams in this zone. Set-plays, especially the fast counter attacks and penalty-corners, good goalkeeping and tactical hockey, are very much in abundance within the teams from yonder. The four teams in the fray with any realistic chance of wining the European championship were The Netherlands, Germany, Spain and England. A few thoughts on each of these teams:

England
A couple of years ago, the English Hockey Association took a drastic step and invited applications for the appointment of an international coach on a full-time basis. At that moment there was a hue and cry, especially as this suggested changing the mindset - discarding one's own home-grown coaches and going international. 'Why should we do this when we have also produced some of the finest coaches the world over?' people asked. They were right. The most coveted and celebrated of coaches being David Whitaker. However, the board stuck to its decision, and so today Great Britain has an Australian coach in Barry Dancer.

Great Britain structured its hockey by constituting a performance committee to run the game. This committee plans and structures the game in all aspects, at all levels, from grass root to club to the national team. The committee also keeps the board abreast of all happenings and approaches the same for funding and other matters. The director of this committee is the former Australian women's assistant coach at the Atlanta Olympics - Chris Spice, who has proved himself as an able administrator. His vision and foresight of the future are really his trump cards. One hears a great deal of his coaching expertise and am sure he, along with national coach and fellow Australian Barry Dancer, will bring about a renaissance in British hockey.

Barry has been around for quite sometime now as a senior coach at the Australian Institute of Sports as well as national coach. Apart from being a thorough professional and having in-depth knowledge of his job, Barry's biggest asset is his unflagging spirit - the ability to go on forever - never tiring when it comes to trying out new ideas. I am fortunate to have met and interacted with both these fine gentlemen and one can honestly say that there will be changes in the fortunes of the British hockey - naturally, for the better.

To add to this duo, they also have John Copp, a former assistant coach to David Whitaker, and also national coach of Great Britain at the '96 Olympics. So, Great Britain hockey has a healthy blend of ideas - the Aussie and British style. The proof of the pudding was at the Commonwealth Games when England played Australia in the semi finals - and ran them ragged before losing out in extra-time. The bulldog spirit coupled with the Aussie aggro will be something new in the realms of English hockey and should stand them good in the years to come.

But one cannot talk about English hockey without mentioning their affable and jovial manager David Whittle. He is synonymous with the Great Britain team. A thorough gentleman and professional, he handles his administrative job to a nicety and helps in keeping the team morale up. Players that have already made a mark on the world map are goalkeepers Simon Mason and David Luckes, full back Jonathan Wyatt, midfielder Russel Garcia, forward Mark Pearn and the penalty-corner exponent Cullam Giles.

Spain
They have dramatically progressed over the last four years. The story behind this phenomenal rise is that the most of this group are from the Horst Wein-trained development model some time in the eighties, where the basics of modern hockey were drilled into these lads. That apart, they have a brilliant motivator in coach Tony Forrelaat. Credit is certainly due to him and his group, as despite a small player base, Spain manages to be among the top teams in the world. Yes, they do have a brilliant defence and very tight midfield, with man-to-man marking as their true forte - but where they excel is in counter attacks - playing on the break. For me, Spain today plays its own style - a blend of tactical and skillful hockey.

Players who have had an impressive international career are goalkeeper Ramon Jufresa, sweeper Joquim Malgosa, who although is the grand old daddy of contemporary hockey, is still such a brilliant player and asset to the Spanish team, midfielders Victor Pujol and forwards in Xavi Arnau, Pablo Amat and Juan Escarre.

Germany
The base of any German team's game-plan is to wear you down and ultimately break you. Their systematic game and tactical play makes them one of the most feared teams in the world. Since the last Olympics they have lost the services of many a mature and experienced player and have been trying all sorts of permutations and combinations to get into their winning ways. Any team losing the likes of Blunck, Volker Freid, Carsten Fisher, Oliver Domke, Klaus Michler, Patrick Bellanbaum and Meinhart would be in the doldrums - but not Germany. Their uniform coaching system (at every level) combined with the fact that they blood youngsters at the international level on a regular basis eradicated this so-called void.

Let us look at the current German team: they must have been under tremendous pressure having come last at the 1998 Lahore Champions Trophy when they took a really raw and new-look team. In many places around the world, especially in the subcontinent, this would have caused heads to roll and seen players axed. But not in Germany - they know that they have one of the most talented coaches in the world - successful and well-respected the world over. They value his expertise and have wholeheartedly backed him. Many felt that Paul Lissek was crazy to have taken a chance in selecting a team with so many youngsters. Germany had five players who were from the old guard (27-28 years old), four players - under 24, five players - under 21 and two - under 18. The base is now set; they have a ready crop that will give a lot of service to German hockey in the years to come, particularly after Sydney, when the old guard might retire.

Players to watch: Goalkeeper Christopher Rietz, defender Micheal Green, midfielders in Christian Mayerhoffer, Bjorn Michel, strikers in Sasha Reinalt, Christoph Beechman, Christian Wein.

The Netherlands
Here is a team that has won nearly every competition over the last four years. Winning has become a habit for the Dutch and their track record speaks volumes for the coach and his team. Roelant Oltmans, I guess, one can say had the Midas touch. Under him the Dutch won the Olympics, World Cup and Champions Trophy in the last four years. His record is the envy of any coach, but one must put aside professional jealousy and be magnanimous to accept the fact that he has done wonders, and salute him for his numerous victories. Roelant today has quit hockey and ventured into soccer and one can only wish him every success in his new portfolio. His able assistant at the Atlanta Olympics, Mauritz Henriks, took over the mantle from his mentor soon after the World Cup at Utrecht in 1998. In all honesty, he had a very difficult task to emulate his predecessor, but Mauritz has done a remarkable job - keeping up the winning tradition - by winning the Champions Trophy in Lahore in 1998 and moulding a well-knit winning combination. He is ably assisted by former captain and the great midfielder Marc Delisen, who was the main brains thrust during the Atlanta Olympics, who followed Coach Reolant Oltmans's plans to the T.

Although the Dutch had already qualified for Sydney by virtue of winning the Atlanta Games - they still came in full strength and totally focused to wrest the European title - something they had not done since 1987 at Moscow. To be precise, the Dutch have won the European Championships only on two occasions - in Amsterdam in 1983 and at Moscow in 1987. Otherwise, it has mostly been the Germans who have emerged victorious in this battle. They word buzzing around is that Mauritz and Marc make a wonderful team, and this duo will be the scourge of many a team in the near future. They are both astute readers of the game, heavily experienced in the modern game, and are down to earth approachable blokes which enhances their team man-management skills.

So the Dutch chose their most experienced and mature players for this event. The household names being Ronald Jansen in goal, Erik Jazet and Jerome Delmee in defense, probably the worlds best penalty-corner exponent - Bram Lomans, midfielders Jaques Brinkman and Stephen Veen, strikers Tuen de Nooojer, Remco van Wyjk etc. Most of these players would walk into any world eleven, such was the depth of the Dutch team.

The tournament
The two pools were evenly matched, with The Netherlands and England in Pool A and Germany and Spain in Pool B.

Pool A
There were no such surprises and, as expected, The Netherlands and England marched on with 13 points a piece - having drawn 3-3 with each other. The Netherlands topped the pool by virtue of a better goal average. So, the semi-finals were The Netherlands versus Belgium and England versus Germany.

Pool B
Well, the tournament started with a bang, with Belgium surprising the Spaniards and beating them 5-3. Although the match was a see saw battle, full credit must go to the Belgians who played to a plan - bottled up the midfield in the first 10 minutes, not giving the skillful Spaniards any room to manoeuvre. A major setback for Spain, but a heart warming start for Belgium.

The match between Germany and Belgium was predicted to be a close one, especially after the Belgians' famous victory over Spain. But one must never take things granted with Germany. In my opinion, they are a team,which comes well prepared in every aspect, and ready to change and adapt in every game. Germany whipped the pretenders 6-2. Another crucial match - especially for Spain - because a victory would ensure them a place in the semi-finals, turned out to be a drab affair as Germany played a workman-like game to ensure a dull draw with Spain. It was the only match of the tournament which ended in a draw. So ended the pool with Germany winning all their matches but drawing one; Belgium in second spot - losing one match, while Spain were third, losing to Belgium and drawing against Germany.

The Semi-finals
Belgium - The Netherlands: The Dutch were stunned in the 6thminute by a goal from Van der Gracht, but Belgium's joy was short lived as the Orange brigade came roaring back with three goals from Lomans, three from Pete Hein Geres and Tuen de Nooijer. Final score: 7-1.

Germany - England: A very balanced first-half, which could have gone either way - so close and hard-fought were the first 35 minutes. However, Germany went ahead in the 26th minute from a Christain Mayerhoffer penalty-stroke. Simon Mason, in fouling Bjorn Michel, conceded another penalty-stroke after the lemon break and again Mayerhoffer obliged. With a two-goal cushion, Germany were in the driving seat, repelling most of the fast English attacks. Rookies Florian Keller and Withaus Mathias completed the rout to give Germany a well-earned 4-0 victory.

The Final
Germany - Holland: Traditional rivals - very much like Indian and Pakistan. The game was truly worthy of a final. There were goals aplenty (six to be precise - both teams sharing three apiece); tension and ultimately passion and drama during the penalty-strokes shoot-out. It was The Netherlands who opened the scoring in the 25th minute through a Bram Lomans penalty-corner. Germany quickly equalised through a penalty-corner from Bjorn Michel, and went into the lead through a Sash Reinalt field goal. The Dutch, never ones to panic, equalised just before the lemon break with another Lomans penalty-corner strike. Came the second half, and both team fought it out vigorously. It was during a momentary lapse in concentration in the German defense that saw Tuen de Noojer exploit the opportunity and slam the ball into the roof of the net, leaving the Germans shell-shocked.

Captain Christian Mayerhoffer then really got round his troops and played his heart out. Perseverance finally paid off. Five minutes from time Becchman found the equaliser for Germany. Both teams then played it safe and held possession. Came the 15 minutes extra-time and the golden goal rule (which ever team scores first is the winner irrespective of the time) and both teams missed sitters - Christoph Beechman for Germany and Jaap Derk Buma for the Dutch. Final score 3-3 after extra-time. Came the penalty-strokes' shoot out. In all honesty, one would have put money on the Dutch, especially with goalkeeper Ronald Jansen to hold their fort and guard the citadel. But alas, it was the Christopher Reitz the German goalkeeper who came out on top in this duel. He singlehandedly wrested the title for Germany. His contribution: saving three consecutive penalty-strokes. Phew- Phenomenal, especially when one is faced with a seven yard flick against the likes of Lomans and gang!

To sum up the German victory, I would like to quote their goalkeeper Christopher Reitz. "It was the boldness and enthusiasm of the younger German lot that easily countered the Dutch experience."

So ended the European championships, with Germany again holding on to the title (something they have made their own) and qualifying directly for Sydney.

In my opinion, Germany were the underdogs. Because for me I thought it would be victory for The Netherlands, with either Spain or England in runner-up position. A rampant English team swamped Belgium 7-2 won the bronze medal. The margin would have been much larger but for an outstanding display by the goalkeeper Deneumostier Vincent.

Final standings: Germany, Netherlands, England, Belgium, Spain etc.

Statistics
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that the strengths of all european teams are the set-plays.
Let me just broadly mention the percentages converted in terms of penalty corners: Germany 20%, England 20%, The Netherlands 28%, Spain 18%, Belgium 17%.
Other highlights were- Jaques Brinkman caps exceeding Pargat Singh's 300 and thereby becoming the world's leader in international caps.
The player of the tournament- Christian Mayerhoffer
Man of the final- Christopher Reitz
Tournaments leading goal scorer- Bram Lomans-12 goals. Total goals scored 226.

The last zone- Oceania - is basically a two-horse race between Australia and New Zealand. Matches between these two countries are just like what is prevalent when India plays Pakistan or when Germany plays The Netherlands - Fast, furious and highly competitive. Although the matches were close affairs, Australia won the competition, thereby pushing New Zealand to the qualifying tournament in Japan 2000.

The Olympic qualifying tournament
This will be held in Osaka, Japan, from March 9 to 20. Teams in the fray for the six Olympic berths are: Japan, Spain, Belarus, Belgium, Argentina, South Korea, Great Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland and Switzerland.

Cedric D'Souza

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