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Junior World Cup: How Covid has widened gulf in class between hockey’s haves and have-nots

The pandemic had affected the World Cup even before it began. Australia, New Zealand and England had all pulled out due to different Covid-related reasons.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Bhubaneswar |
November 29, 2021 3:37:38 pm
Junior World Cup Hockey, IndiaIndian players celebrate after scoring a goal against Canada in the ongoing Junior World Cup. (Hockey India)

The USA dodged past a maze of pandemic-forced travel restrictions, battled long layovers at the airports and spent more than 30 hours travelling, to reach Bhubaneswar for the Junior World Cup. Only to get spanked: 3 matches, 3 defeats, 36 goals conceded and only one scored.

Their neighbours Canada were marginally better … or were they? The Canadian players paid $6,500 each from their own pockets to get here. Their group stage, however, ended winless; allowing 25 goals and scoring just two.

The two North American sides weren’t an exception. Their plight, in fact, was symptomatic of the gulf existing between the haves and have-nots of world hockey, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Any kind of world event like this always broadens the gap between people who have resources and don’t have resources,” Canada coach Indy Sehmbi says. “At the best of times of times, Canada already has a gap.” Now, it’s further widened.

Sample this:

* In the last three men’s Junior World Cups – 2009, 2013 and 2016 – there was only one match – India vs Singapore, 2009 – where a team ended with a 10-goal winning margin. In the first phase of the ongoing Junior World Cup alone, there have already been six such instances, not including the one-sided score lines of 12-5 (Netherlands-South Korea) or 9-0 (Spain-South Korea) or 8-2 (India-Poland).

* The bottom four teams of each group – Chile, Canada, the USA and Egypt – have conceded 99 goals, unprecedented even by the high-scoring nature of hockey.

* Before this tournament began, the highest victory margin for a team in the Junior World Cup was 13-0, when India beat Singapore in 1982. That marked has been crossed twice already in this edition, with USA on the receiving end on both occasions: 17-0 loss to Spain and 14-0 to the Netherlands.

Consider the plight of Egypt. In the 2016 Junior World Cup, the African nation let in 13 goals in total. This time, they allowed 14 in just one game, against Argentina. “We did very little back home, in the last year we had very few training sessions,” says Egypt coach Abu-Talib Maggid. “There are no sponsors because of Covid but the federation is doing their best. However, it’s not an easy job.”

In one way or another, every country in the Junior World Cup has suffered because of the pandemic. The Indian players didn’t compete internationally for almost two years. Germany didn’t even practice as a group, their players were spread all over the country and trained in smaller groups depending on each other’s proximity. But they at least got to train unhindered, even the Indians.

For many countries, this luxury was not possible. Egypt had less than 20 training sessions in the whole of last year. In Canada, they weren’t even allowed to step onto the training field because of the pandemic.

In fact, the last time Canada’s players — half of them of Indian origin — played a match was in 2019. In that sense, they are in the same boat as India. The difference, however, is the depth in player pool. While Graham Reid and BJ Kariappa had a group big enough to play intra-squad matches or even make them play with the senior side, there was a high dropout rate in Canada because of the pandemic.

“Certain countries have had choices to make: health or sport,” Sehmbi says. “I’m always proud of a country that chooses health over sport… we weren’t even allowed to do physiology. No on-field training also. We had a really robust programme from 2017 to 2019. (But) after Covid hit, we lost probably say 15-20 players from the programme.”

The pandemic had affected the World Cup even before it began. Australia, New Zealand and England had all pulled out due to different Covid-related reasons. Consequently, Canada, US and Poland were drafted as late replacements to make sure the balance of the groups wasn’t disturbed. It was widely expected that these teams would end up being the whipping boys of their group. But it wasn’t anticipated that the competition would get this skewed.

Europeans dominant

Other than France’s upset win over India on the opening day, most other matches followed the script. Former Japan and the new Pakistan coach Siegfried Aikman says it’s not a coincidence that European nations — who have topped all four groups — have been dominant in the first phase.

“The European teams have many opportunities to play practice matches because they are very near to each other. They have European Championships, European qualification matches… we don’t have that in Asia,” Aikman says. “Actually, Asian hockey was out of running for two years, at least with the juniors.”

Aikman knows. As Japan coach, he struggled to get any match time for his players in the build up to the Olympics due to strict Covid-19 regulations and distances between the hockey-playing countries. It was the same with India as well.

As senior programmes suffered, the juniors were hit even more. In Pakistan, the only preparation they had was a short training camp weeks before leaving for India. Malaysia, Aikman says, went to Britain ‘with a bit of luck, but still it was very difficult to compete.’

“India lost to France only because it was their first match and they hadn’t played internationally in a long time. France played Belgium, Holland, Germany… they played many matches. They came here with a lot of experience,” Aikman says. “You need matches, because you learn when you play. If you are not challenged, you won’t learn.”

In case of the teams from North America and Africa, the problems caused by the lack of matches are glaring. Canada hasn’t really been a threat to any of hockey’s major sides but they had a reputation of having a strong defence — India will vouch for this, after they were held to a frustrating draw at the Rio Olympics that changed the dimension of their campaign.

Post-pandemic, however, that’s been one big change. Their nifty footwork has gone missing, the grit non-existent. Not just them, teams like South Korea and Pakistan, who were anyway on the decline, have fallen further behind because of the lack of matches in the last two years.

“Some people say these teams shouldn’t be here”, Sehmbi says. “But how else do you get better? We don’t want to sit and cry (over this). We have to learn and improve.”

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