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EXCLUSIVE – Germany Cracked in Front of India’s Mental Strength: Dhanraj Pillay

Germany’s aggressive approach triggered a fightback by Team India at Tokyo 2020 men’s hockey event, which will be talked about for decades to come. Manpreet Singh and a bunch of diehards will climb the podium to receive their bronze medals, sparking a wave of emotions across the nation and a morale-booster for the remaining Indian sportspersons in the process of performing on the Olympic stage. A hockey medal is equal to 100 other medals, was the boast Dhanraj Pillay is familiar with.

Four Olympic appearances (1992 Barcelona to 2004 Athens) saw him spearhead India’s hopes, bearing the weight of expectations owing to the regularity with which our players in the past returned with medals. The 2021 batch delivered a bronze, capping a display of grit and goals, pitted against the world’s top hockey sides… Australia, Argentina, Spain, Great Britain and Germany. The last-named country is familiar territory for the long-serving hockey spearhead and a famous face in the European nation.

Dhanraj played in Bundesliga’s 2000 season for Stuttgart Kickers as a foreign pro, allowing him the chance to view the German way from close quarters. The highpoint for him in Indian colours, in front of German fans, happened in FIH Champions Trophy 2002. He was named the Player of the Tournament and India ended in fourth place. The ex-India captain and multiple World Cupper, watching Manpreet’s side rise to the occasion in Tokyo, felt a weight lifting off his chest. Excerpts from a chat with the maestro:

Germany brought out the best in us, going by our fightback in the bronze match. Your thoughts on their tactics?

A: The Germans don’t play attacking hockey in all four quarters of any match, at times they prefer control and rotate the ball multiple times. I feel they must be the only team in world hockey to switch the ball among themselves six to seven times and slowly try to reach the centreline. From there, long passes go out to the flanks and into the circle. Whenever our defence was present in numbers and put up a strong front, we were able to handle the situation.

Controlled hockey is their forte, they may feel very anxious inside after training but players don’t show emotions. Forcing penalty corners is their objective and over the years, Germany always had a specialist to convert them. From 1984 onwards, specialists were always present to get them the goals, Carsten Fischer is a name which comes to mind. India was able to counter the penalty corner attempts because Sreejesh stood tall in the goal. He defied them, even in the last minute when they got a penalty corner, he kept them away from scoring.

Thoughts on the Indian display in the hockey competition, culminating in a podium finish? What clicked for Team India in Tokyo?

A: Mental strength by our players who did not give up. India lost to Belgium in the semi-final and were consigned to the placing match. In the past, the morale of our players went down after suffering such a reverse and performances got affected in placings matches. This Indian team is different. After losing 1-7 to Australia, going down 2-5 to Belgium (semi-final), they kept going. I get the feeling this team is psychologically very strong and this quality was seen in full force. Winning 5-4 against one of the toughest sides in the world is remarkable.

Germany has rarely gone back from an Olympic Games empty-handed (till Tokyo that is). Can you explain what makes them manage a podium finish?

A: German teams are developed over a long time. It took them 16 to 17 years to work on this bunch, for that matter any top European sides become formidable over time. Belgium for example where nowhere in hockey when I was playing, now they are among medallists due to work done over decades. The point to be noted here is that in Europe, top hockey playing nations have structures in place at home, for a systematic training and grooming of talent.

Team India men and women qualified for the Olympics semi-final. Do you feel Indian hockey is changing for the better?

A: Team India now is reaping the fruits of development done over years in the recent past, investment in infrastructure, training and exposure. The government and sports ministry, state government and federation worked together. The facilities for players in national camps has improved. No longer do four to five players share a room like we did, now it is two sharing a room and luxurious facilities provided at SAI complex in Bengaluru. Money is invested by the government into hockey for national team preparation and exposure.

Going back to Germany, did the 2000 season with Stuttgart Kickers in the Bundesliga bring out the best in you also?

A: The German club league is one of the toughest tests for a professional, because teams don’t allow you to dominate. For a forward, it is tough to get away from defensive players preferring a physical game, using their body to keep pressure on the player receiving the ball. Clubs there play structured hockey, they don’t go chasing a goal or try to force a penalty corner till the right moment. Times have changed, so have the Germans and the current side has players with a variety of skills, like Indians.

When you were playing for Stuttgart, did they study your game or were you asked to teach them skills which Asian players are known for?

A: Teammates used to ask me how I did those tricks with the stick, how I got away with the ball even before the opponent had started thinking about what Dhanraj is going to do next. It was hard work for them trying to become comfortable with doing our skills, easy for me to pull off because these are instinctive moves. I remember them laughing at the ball juggling in practise games, wondering how this was possible.

India’s hockey contests against Germany refreshes memory of the 2002 Champions Trophy in Cologne, you named Player of the Tournament. How did hockey fans there and former teammates react?

A: I was 34 years old then and after seeing my burst from the centreline against Pakistan, going past four players to relay the ball to Prabhjot Singh for a goal, hockey fans and club fans were happy to see the skills intact, fire inside still raging. Germany gave me a lot of happiness. Today, I am happy for Indian hockey from deep in my heart.

Do you feel fans of Indian hockey will rejoice, seeing now we have a team which beat Germany in a must-win game?

A: Winning an Olympic medal after so many years has given me such joy, not only to me, but to numerous hockey players whose effort jointly made this result possible. Coaches attached to junior and senior squads, support staff also, who worked with these players over the years, their work needs to be remembered. Harendra Singh (ex-India coach at the 2018 World Cup) is a name which comes to mind. The Olympic squad had many players who were under him in the development stage. This team under the current coach (Graham Reid) has created an opportunity for us to celebrate. I mean not only hockey players, the entire nation should be celebrating.

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