The Bhojpuri connection: Meet Siegfried Aikman, the man behind Japan's stunning hockey win

Coach Siegfried Aikman (left) celebrates after Japan's win against Malaysia in the men's hockey gold medal match at the Asian Games. MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

Players across Indian sports teams routinely communicate with each in Hindi to ensure that opponents don't understand the play they are making. This usually works for most opposing coaches. But a few days back, when the Indian hockey team was playing Japan during a league match of the Asian Games, Siegfried Aikman had an idea what was being discussed.

"They were telling each other, 'upar upar (up, up), They were trying to put pressure on us upfield," says Aikman. "Ham Hindi samjhila (I understand Hindi)," he says with a grin.

India may have won that match comprehensively but Aikman has the last laugh, coaching Japan to an historic win over Malaysia in the final of the Asian Games on Saturday evening. He smiles at the thought of fashioning a gold medal for the country. "It would have made my great grandfather quite happy," he says.

The Bhojpuri dialect Aikman is familiar with, hints at his heritage. 59-year-old Siegfried 'Siggy' Aikman's great grandfather was one of millions of indentured Indians who made the journey across kala pani (a big ocean) to the West Indies. "My ancestors are from Lucknow and Bihar. I only know the first name of my great grandfather. Chotkan. He was the son of a goldsmith but he was the sixth son so there wasn't really much of a future in India. So he came on a contract to Suriname. He met my great grandmother on the boat and that's how I came to be," he says.

Growing up in the large Indian community in Paramaribo, Aikman, who got his unusual German-sounding name from his father's side of the family (They are of African and Chinese extract), was immersed in Indo-Caribbean culture. "I grew up with Hindustani traditions. In fact, my first language was Hindi. I was vegetarian till I was 6, and my mother wanted me to become a sadhu (saint), but I spoiled it because I started eating meat. When I'm with my Hindustani family, I do my Hindustani traditions. I do my puja (prayer) and eat my daal (pulses). When I got married, I did my pheras (ritual turns around sacred fire during Hindu weddings)."

Aikman left that environment when he went to live with his mother in the Netherlands as a 12-year old. That was when he developed a fascination for hockey as well as Japan. "I read the James Clavell novel Shogun and I was electrified by the beauty and cruelty. I had a dream to at least one day go to Japan. I got a chance to go to Japan," he says.

It was hockey that would take him there. After playing at a club level until he was 24, Aikman abruptly quit and decided to become a coach. "I decided I knew more than the coaches so I decided to show them that," he says. Indeed, Aikman would go on to have a successful coaching stint at the club level, leading women's club Den Bosch to their first of a record 11-straight national titles in 1998.

He would also become a coach educator with the International Hockey Federation (FIH). "Most of the coaches at these Asian Games have studied under me at some point in their career. I've come to India many times to conduct training camps. Even (India coach) Harendra Singh has taken many courses under me, the last one was at the World Cup in Hague," says Aikman.

He also kept his day job as a High Performance Manager in Holland, abiding by a rule he had set for himself -- never quit the duty. "Hockey was a passion, not a job for me." He has only broken that rule twice. On both occasions, it was to coach the Japanese men's team. The first occasion was unsuccessful and he was fired after failing to lead his side to the 2012 Olympics. The second stint has - as the Asian Gold medal suggests - been far more successful.

Aikman says he was also approached to coach the Indian team in the early 2000s. "This was a time when India had done badly at some World Cup and they were looking for foreign coaches for the first time. And so, I was approached and I applied and then you know how things work in India. They told me the minister is looking at it and that was the end of that," he says.

Although Aikman is one himself, he has a dim view of the role of foreign coaches in Asian countries. "Where are your local coaches? Harendra (Singh) is a promising coach and I sympathise with him because I know it's difficult for him to be recognized in his own country. Asia needs to invest in its own coaches. It's not there in any Asian country. It's not there in Japan and its not there in India," he says.

He is insistent that imported coaches must adapt to local cultures. "You might come as a traveler but you need to be a part of the local culture because that's how you can best inspire your players," says Aikman, who will soon be making a mountain trek on September 13th - to honour the historic Battle of Sekigahara. When Japan were 2-5 down with eight minutes to go, he appealed to their Samurai heritage. "The Samurai spirit is that you never give up, Whatever happens, it is unacceptable to break," he said, after Japan first equalized 5-5 and then 6-6 in the final 20 seconds of the game.

But Aikman also believes the coaching culture in many Asian countries is broken. It's too hierarchical, not just in India but in Japan too. "We have this thing called senpai-kohai (senior worker-junior worker). So we think that just because a player is an Olympian, he will know everything about coaching even though he has zero knowledge."

Which is why Aikman's goal is to make himself obsolete. "When I was hired by Japan, one of my targets was to ensure I'm not around after the 2020 Olympics. I want my staff members to become the next head coach of Japan."

Would that free him up for a chance to work with the Indian team? With twinkling eyes, he says he wouldn't rule that out. "I've always felt that if I ever had to coach a country, it would either be Japan or India. Maybe after the Olympics," he smiles.