Xiaoping Guo forced his teammates to pose for a selfie. But the simple, boring smiling faces weren’t enough for him. Guo wanted them to show a bit of energy and some emotion. They were reluctant at first, but relented eventually. So, tired and out of breath, they stood near touchline on the centre of the pitch and yelped in joy.
For a nation that is famous for celebrating gold medals with stoic expressions, it was rather extraordinary to watch these 18 men – most in their mid-20s – celebrate a draw. But for Chinese men’s hockey, the magnitude of this moment couldn’t be underplayed. In theory, China’s 2-2 draw against England was just a draw. But, for them, it was almost like a win. The team’s coach South Korean Kim Sang-Ryul called it his team’s ‘best result.’ For the tournament, this felt like the biggest upset so far even though it was just a draw.
This was, after all, only the third time that a World Cup debutant had managed to draw its opening match of the tournament – and the first time since 1994, when South Africa held Germany 1-1 (the only other instance being Poland holding Pakistan to a 2-2 draw in 1975). Unlike those two results, England aren’t among the tournament favourites. But they are among the half-a-dozen teams which are expected to go deep into the tournament — semifinal being a realistic ambition. For China, among the least active teams internationally, to rob a point off them is just as shocking as Iceland shocking the English football team at the Euros two years ago.
Sample this: 17 out of 18 Chinese players have a total of 435 international matches between then. In contrast, England’s Barry Middleton alone has 425 matches to his name.
Unlike the football upset, though, China did not achieve the result by simply ‘parking the bus.’ They were fast and direct, and at times, extremely skillful. Guo dribbled past three defenders on the baseline to give China the surprise lead early in the first quarter. And even though England came back strongly to go ahead, China refused to throw in the towel and equalized from Du Talake’s fierce drag-flick with a minute remaining. “Our boys have no experience. So for them to score not one but two goals… I am very happy,” Ryul said.
It was an emotion that had gripped the entire team. As he walked past the mixed zone – a narrow, crowded area where journalists and players interact — Ao Zhiwei, the tall goalkeeper who’d shown athleticism of a gymnast, couldn’t stop grinning. When asked his performance, his response was typical to Chinese athletes. “No English,” he smiled apologetically. The goalkeeper is a Daur and so are all his teammates.
Beikou similar to hockey
In a country of billion-plus people, the Daurs are an ethnic minority of Inner Mongolia — an autonomous region of China — with a population of roughly 100,000. Few speak English and even though they are taught Mandarin in school, they speak in their own language. Nomads by nature, hockey – rather, a sport resembling it – has been the bedrock of this community for over 1000 years.
They call it beikou. It’s a sport in which a round object, a makeshift ball, is hit with long, tree branches that are bent at the foot and are given smooth, square edges. The traditional uniform involves silk robes with a sash and high boots along with a hat. Both sides of the stick are used to dribble the ball, and the team that scores most goals wins.
When the British version of field hockey came to China centuries later, the Daurs took it up instinctively and began dominating it. Moli Dawa, a tiny village in Inner Mongolia, is where most talent emerges from. “All my players are from this background…they are all from Inner Mongolia,” Ryul said.
Ryul, one of the most respected coaches in the world, has been associated with the Chinese team for more than a decade. After getting his coaching diploma from Patiala’s National Institute of Sport, Ryul led his country South Korea to a silver medal finish at the Sydney Olympics.
Soon after, he was made in charge of the Chinese team in the hope that they would be competitive at the Beijing Olympics. Ryul made an instant impact, leading them to a silver medal at the 2006 Asian Games, but the team came a cropper at the Beijing Games, finishing 11th out of 12 teams.
Since then, the team has been in a freefall. In a country where gold medals are common, the government had no time for hockey post Beijing. Consequently, their funding has been slashed and international appearances have thus taken a hit. “We did not participate in the Asian Games because our federation didn’t think we would win. It is tough but our boys and me are ready to fight,” Ryul said.
China trained for just five weeks before the World Cup. But on Friday, they were impressive with their structure and individual skills. The team has a reputation of taking early leads, as was the case on Friday, and showcasing deft touches. They are quick and direct in their approach, making them a tricky side to defend against. Against England, they showed defensive frailties but were often saved by the brilliance of Zhiwei.
“We have strong spirit… one step faster, one step longer. Now, we want to finish third in our pool and qualify for next round,” Ryul said. It might not be an ambition that meets China’s gold standards. But for this bunch, reaching the crossovers would be nothing short of a medal-worthy feat.