Over the last fortnight, the top eight hockey nations tested each other out in a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar. But they return worrying not just about their opponents. While most teams were unhappy with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) for the way it scheduled the World League Final, their bigger concern was the health of their players after several sides were hit by a mystery illness.
Netherlands chief coach Max Caldas has said there is “no guarantee” that players will “not get sick” in India and are toying with the idea of bringing their own chefs for the World Cup, which will be played from November 28 to December 16 next year. Germany coach Stefan Kermas has said they will run thorough checks on their players before taking up the issue with the organisers.
In an interview to Dutch website hockey.nl, Caldas said they have thought of renting two large apartments but have been advised against it because of security issues. “We have looked at other locations. We have considered bringing our own cook for next year, but the hotel does not want that. There are sick people in every team here. There is no guarantee that you will not get sick in India,” Caldas was quoted as saying. “We have also looked to just rent two large houses, but then you are back to safety (concerns). We are not finished yet.”
Netherlands were one of the five teams whose players took ill during the tournament. While the team’s captain Seve van Ass had said the three Dutch players — Thijs van Dam, Joep de Mol and Pirmin Blaak — were ‘down with stomach issues because of something in the food,’ the team’s manager Ronald Brouwer said they were not sure of the cause of the illness.
That was the case with most teams. England coach Bob Crutchley said the situation was not ideal after three of his players were ruled out during the group stage. Argentina and Spain, too, had a few players down. All four teams were staying at the same hotel, forcing the organisers to rush food safety officials to check its kitchen and supplies.
The issue severely impacted the quality of the tournament as the teams were not able to play their full-strength squads. Germany were the worst hit. They played their semifinal against Australia on Saturday with just 13 players after four were down with high fever. After the match, two more players were hit with a similar bug and were not available for the bronze medal match against India on Sunday.
That left Germany with just nine outfield players. They eventually started with their goalkeeper Mark Appel as a centre-forward and had no substitutes on the bench. Appel’s goal gave India a scare but the Olympic bronze medallists ultimately lost the playoff 2-1. Hosts India, eventual champions Australia and Belgium were the only three teams who did not report any incident of players falling ill. Kermas said they will take necessary precautions before the World Cup but he has not pressed the panic button yet. “The problem is we don’t know the exact reason (of players’ illness). We will try to find out, run checks. We want to keep this danger as small as we can (for the World Cup),” he said. “There is one year to go, time for that. Illness can attack your tournament. We played very well, but without four or five players it’s not possible to win tournaments.”
Most teams took basic precautions in what they ate and drank, and used disinfectants and hand sanitisers every time they stepped out of their rooms. But Caldas was also upset with the FIH for not doing much to guarantee player safety. He called India’s semifinal against Argentina a ‘water ballet’, calling the conditions too ‘dangerous’ to play. The match was played on a water-logged pitch following incessant rains the whole day on Friday. The former Argentina international also added that when he broached the issue of player illness with the FIH doctor, his only advise to the players was “to wash hands” to maintain proper hygiene.
“The FIH also has to co-operate during such tournaments in India, which is also a fantastic country to organise a World Cup,” he said. “You saw that the India-Argentina match was one water ballet. It was just played through. That was dangerous. The only thing the FIH doctor said about hygiene was that we had to wash our hands. Yes, we understand that ourselves.”