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India triumph would be better for hockey - Japan coach Aikman

Siegfried Aikman Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN Photo

Among the weekend crowd of 15,000 hockey fans who packed into the stands at the Kalinga stadium on Saturday, one had a bit of professional interest in being present. Siegfried Aikman, coach of the Japanese men's hockey team, was in Bhubaneswar too, watching first as the Netherlands demolished Malaysia 7-0 and then as Germany got the better of Pakistan 1-0.

Japan haven't qualified for this World Cup, but Aikman is glad to be here. He had been being trying for a while to get to Bhubaneswar. He made plans half a year back, well before his side produced one of the shocks of the Asian Games, winning their first-ever gold medal in the men's team tournament.

"I had asked Hockey India for an accreditation in April but they didn't give one to me," he says with a smile. The 59-year-old then asked an old friend to help him out. "At the Asian Games I asked my friend Harendra (Singh) if he could do something."

Their rivalry as opposing coaches at the Asian Games aside, Aikman and Harendra, the Indian coach, go a while back. It was a relationship that began when Harendra studied for his FIH licenses under the Suriname-born Dutchman of Indian descent. "I've been his teacher," explains Aikman. "But our bond goes beyond hockey. Harendra is more like family with me and he feels the same way about me. So when I asked him for some help he did what he could," says Aikman.

Aikman's a hockey nut foremost, but he is here on a mission, too. Sixteen of the world's best hockey-playing nations are in Bhubaneswar, and Aikman is analyzing them all. "The Hockey World Cup is the place to be. All teams are perfectly ready for their journey to the Tokyo Olympics and we are going to be there at the Tokyo Olympics," he says.

And while there's almost two years still to go for the 2020 Games, Aikman believes the groundwork for the team's strategies have been put in place. "The teams have already set their targets for how they want to play. That means they are playing at their best here and their strategy for Tokyo 2020 is already in place. They only have two years in place and in those two years they have to build on what they have now," he says.

Ahead of the evening matches, Aikman dropped in to watch the Belgian team's training session on one of the practise pitches.

Watching the teams train and play is crucial in figuring out their plans two years from now, he says. "It gets me a lot of insight into what's important for them. I see the things that they have changed because they want to surprise the other teams in here and not in all the other tournaments before. So here I learn and I can see what they really want to do," he says.

"I have my own ideas about how I want to progress and so I can check whether it works. Every coach has a different solution so I can check my ideas on 16 coaches and get inputs from 16 different sides. This will help me to prepare my choices and prepare my team in a better way," he says.

Which is why Aikman stood in lengthy queues to buy non-India game tickets, staying in a modest hotel near the stadium (It has a bathroom, what more do I need really," he says), and walking down to the Stadium for each day's matches.

One wonders whether he even needs to do any of that, what with the wealth of match footage that can be recorded anyway. But Aikman insists he needs to be physically present. What he is looking for isn't just team formation and movements. He looks also at the team's warm-up routines to find elements of the team's work ethic. But most of all he wants to get an understanding of the team's psyche.

"Everyone can watch as many videos as they want. The problem with video is that it is two-dimensional. It doesn't show the emotion. Here you can feel, hear and smell and it's not so clinical. Here I can see how the bench reacts to disappointments and to tactical situations. I can see when they panic, when they don't panic. I want to see how the players interact with the bench, not just with each other. How the umpires are interacting with them. It gives me a lot of additional information which helps me decide my strategy and the game plan to target the weak spots in an opponent," he says.

It's these soft skills that make all the difference in contemporary hockey. "There really aren't any big secrets in hockey. Tactically it is the same structure; technically, it is all the same skills. Physically it is all the equal or they cannot play at this level. The only real difference is in mental and social and mostly in social skills," he says.

The social aspect of the game he feels is the next frontier of coaching in the sport. "Hockey is a team sport so the most important is how you deal with social issues. How do you support each other and how do you take care of each other? Are your ready to sacrifice for the other one?" he says.

Aikman has already seen the value of that team spirit. It was demonstrated emphatically during the Asian Games final, when Japan scored four goals in the final seven seconds of the game to eventually win their maiden gold medal. Aikman had spoken then of how he drilled the team on fighting as one and he reiterated that point on Saturday. "How the team interacts socially is the most important part of hockey and it's also the most underestimated part of hockey because no one pays important to the social aspect of hockey. Only Harry (Harendra Singh) does," says Aikman.

Aikman has met with his friend in Bhubaneswar too; the two have gone out for dinner on one of India's rest days. And indeed while the two will once again resume their rivalry should their two sides have to play against each other, Aikman can unabashedly support India at the World Cup.

"Foremost I love hockey. When I stepped out of the plane in Bhubaneswar, I was smiling nonstop because everything in the airport, from the photographs to the marketing, was about hockey. So just for that I want India to win the World Cup because that is what is better for hockey," he says.