“I don’t know which brilliant mind made this [Pro League] plan but the person should be banned from hockey” – Siegfried Aikman is never one to mix his words but do you agree with the Dutch great?
Bhubaneshwar: There was a moment during Japan’s match against South Africa that encapsulated head coach Siegfried Aikman’s personality. The Dutchman is usually pensive in the dugout, but when things are not going as per the plan, he doesn’t think twice before showing his frustration.
Japan were leading by a goal in the first half, and were doing well to deny South Africa any sort of freedom in the attacking half. But Aikman was not happy with the play and he showed his emotions by throwing his hat down in anger. He ensured the players on the bench get a view of his exasperation.
“We have some appointments in the team. Players know what to do. If they repeatedly don’t do it, I get frustrated. And it’s about discipline. If we want to make the next step, we have to show that discipline, especially on those valuable moments. My players on the bench, they have to see that I’m not happy because if they don’t see it, they won’t change their behaviour,” Aikman told Firstpost after Japan beat South Africa 2-0 in their Pool B match.
Under Aikman, Japan won gold at the Asian Games in Jakarta last year, thereby qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Being the hosts, Japan had already booked a spot in the Olympics, but the Asian Games gold medal justified their place in the elite tournament.
But Aikman, who has been coaching Japan since 2017 in his second stint with the country, is not happy with the direction international hockey is heading. He doesn’t mince words when asked about FIH Pro League and its impact on the game.
“My thoughts on the Pro League is that matches are fantastic but it is eating hockey. It’s killing hockey. With the ranking points, it doesn’t encourage countries to invest because the top eight are Pro League teams and we will get fewer points, ” Aikman said.
“Which tournaments do we have? And then in the future, it will be an invitational tournament. Who do they invite to come? The top teams, so how do we get points to close the gap?” Aikman asked.
The FIH Pro League was introduced this year where top eight teams compete in a round-robin format with home and away matches. The tournament started in January and will run till the end of June with top four teams qualifying for the semi-finals. The event also serves as a qualifier for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the four best teams making to the final round of qualifiers and it also has more ranking points.
“I don’t know which brilliant mind made this plan but the person should be banned from hockey because it’s making hockey less popular. And by the way, all the countries can’t pay all the costs of Pro League because, in the past, you pay the money and play in the tournament. But now you have to travel for months. Where do we get the money? Hockey is a small sport,” Aikman said in an irritating tone.
India refused to participate in the first edition as the federation thought the chances of making it to the Olympics are higher with the FIH World Series event. But in April this year, Hockey India confirmed that the men’s team will join the league next year.
While Pro League gives the opportunity to teams to play quality opponents for a period of six months, there’s a strong case that other lower-ranked teams miss out on chances to improve and develop. The fact that it’s an invitational tournament and there’s no guarantee that the lower-ranked teams will feature in the future Pro League events. This makes elite-level hockey an exclusive club and Aikman says as it is.
“It is. It is. And that’s why I said it’s killing hockey. It’s a Trojan horse,” Aikman said.
“How can you do that with an invitational tournament? What right does India have to join and others don’t? Money? Is that it? If you want to do it, do it on a proper basis, but don’t invite the country just because of the money.”
With South Africa struggling with form, Japan were the favourites to top their Pool in Bhubaneswar and qualify directly for the semis. They had to win their match against the US team that beat higher-ranked South Africa in the first match and then thrashed Mexico 9-0.
But things didn’t go as per plan for Aikman as Japan drew their match against the US and will now have to play the crossover match against the third-ranked team in Pool A to make it to the semis. Before the match, Aikman stressed on the importance of not taking any opponents lightly and how not always the best team ended up winning the match.
“I never take an opponent lightly. In nowadays hockey, you just can’t. A lucky strike and you’re out. I saw South Africa vs USA, South Africa was much better but then USA scored and South Africa were desperately looking for an equaliser and then the next goal came (USA beat SA 2-0). That’s hockey, that’s the sport and that’s what makes the sport so exciting.”
As expected, Japan dominated the proceedings but it was the US team that scored the first goal. Pressure was on Japan as they had to win the match and a draw will push them to the second place in their Pool. The US team scored once again in the final quarter to take lead and thereby making it tougher for Japan to clinch the match. Aikman’s side equalised in the final minute of the match but now they have to play one more tricky match to qualify for last-four