As the final hooter rang out at Bhubaneswar's Kalinga Stadium, China coach Kim Sang-ryul pumped his fist from the team dugout. His side had just secured a 2-2 draw against England, the first upset of the 2018 World Cup. England, who finished fourth at the 2014 edition, are expected to go deep in the tournament, whole China, the second-lowest ranked team in the competition, have had a far tougher journey to get here.
Recent results haven't been in their favour. They last competed against England at the 2017 Hockey World League Semi-finals, where they lost 2-0. They also lost 10-0 to Argentina in the same tournament. Sang-ryul was honest about how his team had progressed since then. "We have not improved, actually. We haven't prepared very well for the World Cup. We didn't have any practice games against other countries," he says. China didn't even participate at the 2018 Asian Games after their sports federation deemed them unlikely to win a medal.
A lesser coach might have baulked at the challenge he was up against. But Sang-ryul is used to going against the grain. That characteristic first showed up when he decided to study at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala back in 1985. He was the first from his country to do so. "We (South Korea) were nowhere in hockey then. At that time, India was the best country in Asia so I had to learn from here. It was my own decision and I spent my own money to come here," he says.
Sang-ryul still treasures the time he spent in the North Indian city studying under Olympic gold medallist Balkrishan Singh. "I still have my diploma from NIS. I was a very lucky guy to have Balkrishan sir as my guru," he says.
The cordial bond with India continues to this day. "He's a very fun-loving guy and someone who really loves India," says former India player Jagbir Singh, who is calling matches in Bhubaneswar.
Sang-ryul would use his coaching knowledge gained in India to use first in forging a winning team out of South Korea. Under his leadership, they went from 10th at the 1988 Olympics to winning a silver medal at the 2000 edition. "He challenges himself every day," says Jagbir Singh of Sang-ryul's philosophy.
Sang-ryul is also known to be a bit of a maverick. At the 2000 Olympics, he was the first to have his players rush out of the goal to defend penalty corners. It was a near-suicidal approach that caused multiple injuries to his team, but also ensured they qualified for an unprecedented final.
Following a fallout with the Korean team (He quit in a huff after criticizing the Korean women's team for a lack of commitment, according to Jagbir) - Sang-ryul headed to China.
Sang-ryul has been working within the Chinese system for about a decade now, having first coached the men's team ahead of the 2008 Olympics. The stay has been hard. Hockey isn't a premier sport in China. There's not a lot of support nor a wide player base - indeed all the players in the team hail from a single province (inner Mongolia).
And while results haven't followed as they did during his stint with South Korea, he hasn't wavered from his mentality of buckling down and getting on with it. That grit he says, is China's playing style, much like the Netherlands' total hockey or Australia's relentless press. What they concede in skill is made up in sheer bloody-mindedness. "Every team in the world has its style. China's characteristic is strong spirit. We don't give up. We must run more than the others. (Always) One step more. One step faster, one step longer," he says.
It's an approach he is confident of. And knowing his past, not many would want to bet against him. "When I took the Korean team, it was all young boys. Because from 1989 I started and after 12 years we got a silver in the Olympics. Every year our ranking is going up and up. That is my target. We must do better than yesterday," he says. "It is the same for China now," he adds with a grin.