Pitch Perfect

League
They are the Ronaldos and Lionel Messis of their universe. The cream of international hockey players is currently in India to take part in the Hockey India League (HIL). Here are the stars and their stories.

'Hockey is a family sport. You play it because you love it'

Jamie Dwyer I 33 (Australian midfielder)

HIL team: Punjab Warriors

Jamie Dwyer has been voted the world's best player five times. Yet, he likes being told he is not good enough. Perhaps that explains why the 33-year-old is still among the best, if not the best.

Dwyer personifies the aggression and never-say-die attitude that define Australia's sportsmen. Over the last decade, he has evolved from being an impact striker to a midfield general with excellent playmaking abilities who controls the pace of the game at will. "I want to win more," he says. "I have won every top competition in my sport — Olympic gold (Athens, 2004), the World Cup (2010), Champions Trophy (2012) — but I just want to keep on winning medals and keep on getting better. There's so much more that I, and the team, can achieve."

It's this relentless approach that has helped him win the FIH (Fιdιration Internationale de Hockey sur Gazon) player of the year award in 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and has helped Australia win a dozen international titles. Dwyer's presence in the dressing room is infectious. A character like him lifts you up, pushes you to go the extra mile. "He's always looking for feedback; always on the quest to improve," says his former Australia coach Barry Dancer. The Dancer-Dwyer combination helped the Kookaburras win their maiden Olympic hockey gold at Athens. Dwyer's extra time goal in 2004 finally ended Australia's Olympic jinx which had consigned them to three silvers and three bronzes despite decades of dominance.

Reunited at the Hockey India League (HIL), the duo is now hoping to recreate the same magic with the Punjab Warriors. For his feeble, but sporting attempts at speaking Punjabi, Dwyer, the captain of Punjab Warriors, is called Jamie Singh by his teammates. But on field, communication is a problem. Dwyer shares a room with India striker Shivendra Singh. "So we converse a lot to improve our communication on field. Given the different cultures in the group, we have used the available time to bond, on and off the field," he says.

Punjab has as many as seven Australians, including Dwyer's brother-in-law and compatriot Mark Knowles — another Australian great. It gives a 'homely' feeling to the dressing room in that sense but outside it, there's been very little time to go sightseeing. "The travelling bit is hectic, so a majority of the time has been spent in hotels and airports," he says. "But I've heard of Punjab's rich history in hockey. There are so many talented youngsters here. What has struck me the most is the knowledge people here have about the game. Overall, it augurs well for the sport not just in India, but the world over."

India has been a happy hunting ground for Dwyer. In 2010, he won two major titles here: the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. The same year, his second son was born. He named him Taj. "I won the World Cup and CWG in Delhi. After the Games, I went to the Taj Mahal and thought it was quite fascinating. Later that year, my second child was born, so I thought of naming him Taj. India has been very kind to me. I think the name's cool," he says.

Taj, only two years old, is already in love with hockey. It's natural, one would imagine, considering that in his father, he has the best possible role model. Yet, outside his family and hockey circles, Dwyer is hardly a celebrity in Australia. The 33-year-old says hockey is the 10th most popular sport Down Under. There are close to 1,45,000 registered hockey players in Australia, a number far less than in cricket, rugby, Australia Rules Football or soccer.

Like in India, hockey assumes significance in an Olympic year for it's one of Australia's best bets for a gold medal. Dwyer excelled in cricket himself and says he would have played professional golf if not hockey. "Hockey is basically a family sport. You play it because you love it. And then, there's the lure of playing at the Olympics. Trust me, there's no better feeling than winning an Olympic gold."

'In Germany, hockey doesn't earn you a livelihood'

Oscar Deecke I 26 (German striker)

HIL team: Delhi Waveriders

Of the hunting trophies that Oscar Deecke's Burse — a rifle with a very long barrel — has collected, one that stands out is the head of a massive buck hanging in his parents' house in Hamburg. His most prized possession, however, is a much smaller item, earned in a significantly less violent manner, although perhaps a lot more sweat and blood went into it. It hung around his neck as he stood on the podium in London on August 12, 2012: an Olympic gold.

The 26-year-old's twin passions — hockey and hunting — might seem vastly different, but in Deecke's case, they are two sides of the same coin. For in order to be a good striker, one needs to have predatory instincts. Hunting is also an outlet for the stress of the sport in particular, and life in general. Stripped of all preoccupations, out there in the woods, it's man against nature. As he puts it succinctly, "hunting takes me away from the city's hectic life and helps me refocus."

The city that drives him away to the jungle nurtured his first love. "The hockey scene is very vibrant in Hamburg," Deecke says. "It is to German hockey what Jalandhar or Ranchi is to Indian hockey." And, therefore, almost everyone in his circle at some point has played hockey. "My father used to play hockey — he still plays — at an amateur level. When I was three, he took me to a local hockey club. I've been playing the game ever since. My two sisters are also club level hockey players. I'm the only one to have made it to the German national team, and now to the Hockey India League. So you can say that I have made my family proud," Deecke says.

Deecke, who plays for the Delhi Waveriders, is one of the three German players in the Hockey India League. For a team which is two-time regining Olympic champion, Germany appears to be under-represented in the league. Australia, which finished third in the London Olympics, has 19 players across five teams. Silver-medallist Hollland has nine.

Deecke agrees. "Only four of us put our names forward for the auction. Perhaps, it's because Germans generally want to play safe. They want to make sure everything is organised well. So maybe they waited to see how it went before taking a plunge."

But there could be another reason, he says, that most didn't simply have time. "In Germany, hockey doesn't earn you a livelihood. Therefore, everyone is either working or studying. Since our Olympic preparations cost us a lot of time, they are, perhaps, making up for that time: at work or at the university."

Although he doesn't work anywhere as yet, Deecke is studying sports economics at the University of Cologne. After the Olympics, he went to Spain to play hockey, but his real objective was to learn a foreign language — in this case Spanish — to add to his professional resume. " I had never lived in any other country, so I wanted to go there, learn their language and experience their culture, and hockey helped me do that," he says.

It's Deecke third time in India. He played a four-nation Gold Cup in Punjab in 2009 and then the FIH World Cup in Delhi in 2010. He says unlike many other foreign players, the Indian experience hasn't overwhelmed him. "It's very different from Germany, but I knew what to expect: crowd, traffic and chaos. I knew the basics, they have served me right."

Which is why his craziest India experience this time was the one that happened to him on December 17, 2012, when he was still in Spain. "It was auction day. We woke up early and following it on YouTube. It was pretty surreal. The whole idea of the auction was foreign to me. I mean you hear animals getting auctioned, how often do humans go under the hammer? It was very interesting. Obviously, I expected to fetch more bids, but went for my base price of $2,50,00 (Rs 13,413,875 approximately)."

He repaid some of it back on the very first day when he scored the first goal of the HIL, against Mumbai Magicians, didn't he? The official scoresheet mentions his name, even though it was an own goal by a Mumbai player. "Well, you know I didn't," he says with a smile. "Still I am proud to have my name against it."

'I have never experienced so much attention for hockey'

Moritz Fuerste I 28 (German midfielder)

HIL team: Ranchi Rhinos

"Who's he?" asked a German scribe, pointing towards a player in a number 9 jersey during the semifinal of the London Olympics last year. A media officer at the Riverbank Arena gave him a long look, handed him a team sheet and circled a name. "Moritz, I see! Well, he's more of a false number 9," the journalist remarked, allowing himself a footballing analogy. A false number 9 in football refers to a player lined up as the lead striker, but drops deep and drifts around the pitch in search of the ball, deceiving the opposition in the process. Fuerste had done that with some proficiency on a breezy night in London. The midfielder was an unstoppable force in Germany's 4-2 win over Australia in the Olympics semifinals, laying the stone for winning the second consecutive gold.

The German journalist wasn't finished yet. He likened Fuerste to Lionel Messi, who too plays as a false number 9 for Barcelona occasionally. He was not far off the mark. Just like the FIFA World Player of the Year, Fuerste too has won every major trophy on offer and has the ability to turn the game on its head single-handedly. With two Olympic golds (Beijing, 2008, and London, 2012), a World Cup, Champions Trophy and European club and country championships titles, Fuerste boasts of an unrivalled CV. He is one of the most feared midfielders in the world and one of the true greats of the modern game. Yet, unlike Messi who earns in millions and is idolised by many, Fuerste lives in relative oblivion. He was only five when he was introduced to the sport by his father. Immediately, he was smitten. But like a hopeless romantic, he fell in love without thinking of the consequences. And by the time he realised hockey didn't have much to offer him financially, he was too involved to detach himself from the sport. "Football is our national sport. It's very difficult for hockey to get recognition," Fuerste says. "Even sports like handball, ice hockey, volleyball and basketball rank above hockey. So it becomes tough for us to make a living out of something we love."

To say there's hardly any money in hockey in Europe would be an understatement. Despite boasting of a solid club culture — the Euro Hockey League is one of the most sought-after tournaments — the players barely earn enough to cover their mortgage and other basic needs. Consequently, most of them are forced to quit at their peak.

Maximilian Mueller, Fuerste's compatriot and Germany captain, contemplated retirement in order to complete higher studies and find a job that pays well. The thought of quitting has crossed his mind at times, but the passion for hockey has kept him going. "The top players earn a bit, but it's not enough to make a living. That's why a lot of players quit when they turn 28-29, which is a pity," Fuerste says. "That is why HIL is an amazing boost for most of us. It is a great opportunity to get some money for doing what we love."

The midfielder is one of the most expensive players in the HIL. He was picked at $83,950 ( Rs 4,504,379 approximately) by the Ranchi Rhinos. As we head into the business end of the inaugural season, it's easy to see why he is worth every penny. Thanks to his remarkable leadership qualities, a young Ranchi side is on the brink of qualifying for the semifinals. "I have never experienced so much attention for hockey. Even the German media, which usually doesn't care much about hockey, seemed highly interested in the HIL. I think it's going to be a big step for the sport overall," he says.

The HIL provides them with financial security, offering players money that they usually earn over a period of six-seven months in the Euro League. What the HIL lacks is proper structure and quality. "It (HIL) is not comparable to the EHL competition. In the latter, the teams train together for the whole year, so they are used to playing together. It is also more structured. But HIL lets one play with many players from different countries, a chance that you don't get otherwise. It widens your horizon and gives a different perspective of the game."

Fuerste came to India expecting nothing. He hasn't had a chance to roam around, having spent most of his time at hotels. But like many international players, he too has had to deal with hectic travel schedules and spicy food, a situation he had "underestimated". But the "abundant hockey talent" seems to have made his "sufferings" worthwhile. "Indian hockey has to get its best players together and support them in an optimal way, even the Under-21 and Under-18 teams. Then, with all the talent in this country, India will make a comeback."

'If I had watched more of Sachin, I might have been a cricketer'

Ashley Jackson I 24 (British Midfielder)

HIL team: Ranchi Rhinos

In the run-up to the London Olympics, when the British media woke up to a world of lesser-known sportspeople who weren't footballers or cricketers or even Andy Murray at the Wimbledon, they discovered a golden-haired, average-built field hockey player who vied for attention with cyclist Bradley Wiggins's sideburns and distance runner Mo Farah's 'Mobot'.

As the press strove to put Ashley Jackson's phenomenon into perspective, they turned, inevitably, to the football lexicon. So the 24-year-old from Kent was dubbed as the David Beckham of hockey, as the game's Cristiano Ronaldo and even as Lionel Messi. Jackson, who plays for the Ranchi Rhinos in the HIL, shies away from these comparisons, but it's easy to see why he's rated so highly. He has a blonde mane and poster-boy looks like Beckham, his drag-flick is as deadly as the footballer's fabled free kick; like Ronaldo, he sports the number 7 jersey for England (he is often called AJ7 the way Ronaldo is referred to as CR7). Almost as tall as Messi, Jackson's skills inside the striking circle are just as sublime.

Curiously, the first sport scholarship that he ever won was owing to his cricketing talent. "Being a left-handed batsman, I always loved to watch Brian Lara; maybe if I had watched more of Sachin (Tendulkar) I might have been a cricketer," he says. Hockey was his back-up sport, but within a few years he became so good at it that he had to drop cricket. At 19, he was playing for the national team.

Widely regarded as the best talent to have come out of England in a while, Jackson's arrival in 2007 has coincided with a revival in men's hockey in Britain. He set up the crucial first goal in Britain's 2-0 win over India in the Olympic qualifiers in Chile in 2008, a result that consigned India to their first no-show at the Games in 80 years. Then in Beijing, Britain punched well above their weight, finishing fifth after qualifying as the ninth team, their best performance since the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. A year later, he scored twice in the final as England beat Olympic champions Germany 5-3 to lift the European championships. He again played a crucial role in England making it to the World Cup last four in 2010 and the Olympic semi-finals last year.

Jackson's performance got him the highest bid for a foreign player — and the second highest bid overall — in the Hockey India League: $73,000 (Rs 3,916,852 approximately). There are other overseas players who are getting more money than him, but they are marquee players who get 115 per cent of the highest bid player in the team. On his website www.ashleyjackson7.com, Jackson, who was at his home club in England, recollects the excitement when, some 7,000 km away, Rhinos were involved in an intense tug-of-war with Ric Charlesworth's Mumbai Magicians to win his services: "(Initially) I couldn't watch it live as I was in a team meeting with East Grinstead at the Super Sixes but Matt Jones (the manager) was mouthing the price silently, and when it hit $40,000 we had to stop the meeting and pay a bit more attention," he says.

When he was finally picked by the Rhinos, his first reaction was to Google it and find out where on earth Ranchi was. He had been to India before, for the 2010 World Cup and the Commonwealth Games, but never quite ventured out of Delhi. He had never even heard of Jharkhand's capital before. He says he felt like he was stepping into the unknown. "Once I had been bought, I Googled to see what I could find. Everything I read said it's the home of hockey and the best place to play, so that was very exciting. Our home fans have been incredible, so everything I read was correct," he says.

The HIL pits players from across the world together, some of who barely speak Jackson's mother tongue. However, Jackson says the language of hockey is easy to comprehend. "It is obviously a challenge, but when we are talking hockey, most things are relatively easy to get across as long as you keep it simple."

'I am proud of everything I have achieved in my career'

Teun de Nooijer I 36 (Dutch midfielder)

HIL team: Uttar pradesh Wizards

Thirty-six-year-old Teun de Nooijer could never have imagined that he could command more money than any other top active player even after his retirement, but if he has anyone to thank for it, it's his reputation. A two-time Olympic champion, winning his first at the age of 20, De Nooijer is the world's most capped player (453 times for Holland), and a three-time World Hockey Player of the Year, a record bettered only by Australia's Jamie Dwyer. The Dutch great has also won European, World Cup and Champions Trophy titles at least once and has been named in the International Hockey Federation (FIH) all-star team in each of the last five years.

De Nooijer ended his 18-year-long international career in October 2012, after leading Holland to a second-place finish at the Olympics. But in the eyes of many, he still wasn't finished. So it wasn't surprising when HIL signed him as their league's third brand ambassador (others being Sardar Singh and Dwyer). In the auction, he was picked up by Sahara-owned Uttar Pradesh Wizards for a whopping $87,400 (Rs 4,689,489 approximately) making him the highest-paid player in the HIL. "I am proud of everything I've achieved in my career. And to be rewarded in this way after my international retirement makes it even more special. All the years of hard work and sacrifice seem worthwhile when you see the way your peers respect you," De Nooijer says.

De Nooijer's frightening speed, slick skills, spectacular passes and stunning finishing earned him admiration throughout the world. In fact, his dribbling abilities and wizardry with a stick is comparable to the football skills of the legendary Johann Cruijff, Nooijer's long-time idol. Early in his career, Nooijer even changed his jersey number to 14, made famous by Cruijff. "Johann is someone I have looked up to since I was a kid. To be compared to him is surreal. But that's also because hockey is very big in Holland," says De Nooijer, who is married to former German hockey player Philippa Suxdorf, who featured at the 1996 Olympics.

Unlike a majority of European nations and Australia, hockey enjoys the second position behind football in Holland and the players are put on a high pedestal. The country will be hosting the men's and women's World Cup next year. "Just like in football, the attendances for big club matches are high, and people understand the sport. People are eagerly waiting for the World Cup next year. In that sense, India and Holland are quite similar," he says.

The comparison between India and Holland begins and ends there. India's fall from grace coincided with Holland's rise as modern hockey's superpower. In terms of structure and development of the sport, India is still light years behind the Dutch. While Holland has more than 200 artificial turfs for hockey, India barely has 50, many of them in unplayable conditions. Plus, a proper club structure, where the focus is on grooming the youngsters, has made their national team a constant threat over the last two decades. De Nooijer likes what he has seen so far in India, but admits there's a lot of scope for improvement. "It amazes me that despite such good players, India isn't where they should be. That's why the HIL is more important for India," he says.

His presence in the dressing room has been inspiring. Indian players, young and experienced, are eager to take a lesson or two. "I want to learn how he manages himself. I want to know about his fitness, his style of play and so many other things. It's good to share the dug-out with him," says India's drag-flick ace VR Raghunath. Nooijer has a simple bit of advice for everyone. "I still enjoy every practice and every game at the highest level. That's what counts the most. If you really enjoy it, keep yourself fit by paying attention to diet and rest, you can play at the highest level," he says.

In a team that has as many as five Dutch players, and a Dutchman as the coach (Roelant Oltmans, who was recently appointed India's high performance director), communication is not a problem. But playing seven matches in 11 days has been taxing. De Nooijer spent his first rest day in a fortnight travelling around Lucknow. "I went around shopping. Lucknow's a beautiful place, very vibrant. We have played in four cities so far. Ranchi was amazing in terms of crowd involvement. Let's see what the last two weeks have in store," he says.

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