Updated: January 20, 2016 7:28:22 am
Benjamin Stanzl grabs a plate and sits on the lunch table opposite coach Cedric D’Souza. He eats quietly, not contributing much to the conversation his teammates on the table are having. But he listens intently to every word that D’Souza says. Perhaps, the Austrian captain is getting a feel of what the future team meetings would be like. Not just with the Delhi Waveriders but also with his national team.
D’Souza has been recently appointed as the chief coach of the Austrian men’s and junior team, a role he will assume immediately after the HIL. He will replace Poland’s Tomasz Laskowski, who will continue as the country’s indoor coach.
It’s an intriguing choice – both, for Austrian hockey as well as for D’Souza, who has coached India twice. It’s the first time Austria will have a coach who is not a German or Polish. But it’s not the first time that D’Souza will coach a country that virtually has zero hockey pedigree. Before the Athens Olympics, the 60-year-old had coached Greece.
Unlike back then, though, this association did not happen out of the blue. From 2010 to 2013, D’Souza was the coach of Austrian club SV Arminen. In those three years, he produced nearly a dozen players for the national team and by the end of his term in 2013, he led the club to their first national title in 15 years. “We kind of progressed in the right direction. So the president of the Austrian federation told me back then if ever there was a vacancy, I’d be the first person he contract,” D’Souza, who will continue as Delhi Waveriders, says. “So during the Hockey World League last year, he came to meet me in Antwerp and asked if I would like to work with them for four years. I had no hesitation.”
Best of Express Premium
D’Souza is tasked with helping the team qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He realises it’s a task as tough as playing hockey outdoors during winter. But he is optimistic. “There’s no point setting lofty goals. I have a great set of players so this isn’t an impossible task,” he says.
Field hockey isn’t the among the popular sports in Austria. In fact, it’s so low in the pecking order that even among the three hockey variations, it is at the bottom with ice and indoor hockey ruling the roost. Their indoor hockey team is ranked second in the world and finished runners-up in last year’s European Championship, losing to neighbours Germany in the final.
But the same cannot be said about their outdoor team. Although most of the players who’re a part of the indoor team also play the outdoor version, and till recently also had the same coach, Austria haven’t quite managed to make a mark continentally. With a player pool of barely 2,000 overall, there isn’t much to choose from and most are semi-professionals. Stanzl is among the handful few who earns a living out of the sport.
Till last year, he played for 2014 European Hockey League champions Harvestehuder of Germany. This year, he has signed for reigning European champions Oranje Zwart of Holland. “Out of the 2,000 only 20-25 are really good players,” Stanzl adds.
D’Souza says the small working group can also be an ‘advantage’ but concedes the task he faces is monumental. He takes over a team, however, that has shown signs of progress, and are ranked 22 in the world – not much behind France, who are among the fast improving European nations.
Last year, though, they achieved a milestone of sorts when they qualified for the elite group of the European Championships by finishing in the top-eight. “That’s a big step forward, finishing in the top eight. We play against the big teams for the next two years at least,” Stanzl says.
Starved for matches
Getting matches against quality opponents hasn’t been easy for Austria. Rather, managing to get any opponent has been a big task. Stanzl says the national team plays just 10-12 matches a year, that too against teams ranked below them, primarily because no one wants to play them. “With Cedric, we hope that will change. He has a lot of contacts in Europe and India so we hope to play a lot more games,” the 26-year-old says, the desperation in his voice apparent.
D’Souza realises the faith put in him by the players and management. And he hasn’t disappointed so far. In March, Austria are set to play a friendly match against Holland, their first meeting outside a tournament. “It is key for us to have more international exposure. We have a match against Holland against March and then I will come to India with the junior team for the World Cup later this year. I have to make sure Austria is not starved of big games, the big teams. You can make your assessments only by playing against bigger nations and also that’s the only way you can improve,” D’Souza says.
🗞 Subscribe Now: Get Express Premium to access our in-depth reporting, explainers and opinions 🗞️
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.