Hockey India on Wednesday sacked the 25th coach of the men’s national team in as many years. But when the decision was announced in a carefully worded statement, coach Harendra Singh was unaware of his fate. Instead, he was at the Ganga ghat in Varanasi, taking a dip in the holy river before preparing for the new season.
When contacted by The Indian Express, Harendra expressed surprise at his relegation to the junior team. “I don’t know about this,” he said. When the Hockey India (HI) press release was read out to him, he declined comment.
The statement didn’t have the word ‘sacked’, instead, HI called this a mere ‘reassignment’, with the High Performance & Development Committee ‘advising’ him to return as junior team coach. “Though the year 2018 was very disappointing for the Indian Men’s Hockey Team with results not going as expected, Hockey India believes investing in the junior program which will reap long-term benefits,” the release said. The applications for senior team coach will be invited shortly.
These decisions were taken during a performance review meeting held in Delhi on Monday, which was attended by HI officials and selectors.
Unlike previous occasions, the players weren’t invited to share their views.
High performance director David John has been given temporary charge of the team. Curiously, HI president Mohammad Mushtaq Ahmed had, a few months ago, accused John was accused of having a ‘prior bias against senior players.’ He was then barred from having a say in the team selection for the World Cup and was sidelined within HI. John wasn’t even in Bhubaneswar for most India matches at the World Cup.
The fate of Jude Felix, the current coach of the junior team, remains unclear. Like Harendra, he too was unaware of HI’s decision and refused to comment.
Harendra’s sacking, although expected, was as sudden as his appointment last May. In the aftermath of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the players complained about the training methods and tactics of then coach Sjoerd Marijne as the team returned without a medal for the first time in more than a decade. At the same time, the women’s team had strung together a series of respectable performances under Harendra.
Why India is a coveted job for coaches
“Who would want to coach India?” It’s a question that is inevitably asked every time Hockey India sacks a coach. But in reality, India remains a destination all top coaches are keen to explore. The money, of course, makes it a lucrative assignment. India is the highest-paying nation in world hockey. In some cases, coaches can make an entire year’s salary by working for just six months in India. But it isn’t just about the money. Like Brazil in football, coaching India has a certain degree of romance attached to it. The history, players’ skills, and the passionate manner in which the sport is consumed attracts several top coaches.
So, HI decided to swap the coaches and made Harendra in-charge of the men’s team, with the hope that he would be able to replicate the success he achieved with the juniors. Under him, India won a silver medal at the Champions Trophy in Netherlands last June, but since then, the team has been mired in chaos.
The failure to defend the Asian Games gold medal last September, which cost India a direct berth in the 2020 Olympics, opened a can of worms as reports of some players falling out with Harendra surfaced.
Senior HI officials accused the coach of being ‘arrogant and overconfident’ as some senior players, like Sardar Singh (retired) and Rupinderpal Singh, were forced out of the squad. HI was close to showing him the door soon after the failed Asian Games campaign but decided against it due to lack of options and the proximity to the World Cup, which was to be played in Bhubaneswar in November-December. The team’s inability to meet HI’s target of reaching the World Cup semifinal was the final nail in the coffin.
HI sources said the defeat in the Asian Games semifinal to Malaysia, and Harendra’s outburst against the referees following India’s exit from the quarterfinals of last month’s World Cup, were the main reasons behind his relegation.
Harendra had accused the umpires of “holding Indian hockey back”. “He isn’t good enough tactically to help the team win big tournaments and his conduct is questionable as well,” a federation official who was involved in the decision-making process said.
Hockey India CEO Elena Norman did not respond to messages sent by The Indian Express seeking comment.