Great expectations


Carrying the burden of expectations is part and parcel of being a sportsman. However, occasionally the burden becomes too onerous to carry, or the athlete shrivels under pressure. Those who manage to synchronise their wavelength of performances with what is expected of them eventually make names in history books. Sometimes the expectations are too improbable, at times the performance is below par; either way the ratio between the outcome and the expectations is one of the most intriguing equations of sports.
Losing out to Great Britain in the opening pool match has dented our chances of filtering through to the next round in the 33rd edition of the FIH Champions Trophy in New Zealand. Even though there were glimpses of brilliance from Pakistan, but being on the wrong end of a 2-1 score line connotes that they have their work cut out in qualifying for the semis. Just like the final score suggests, it was a closely fought encounter and the score line could just as easily have reversed and tilted in our favour.
Pakistan dictated most matters in the first half, and took a deserved lead in the 30th minute, courtesy Muhammed Imran’s strike from the penalty corner. First half saw us carving out decent opportunities that were eventually capped off by going 1-0 up into half-time. However, akin to so many times in the recent past, instead of going for the jugular we rested on our laurels after half-time, vying to protect the slender lead and the British side duly pounced. Middleton and Ashley Jackson collaborated brilliantly to lay the ball on a platter for Pearn to finish; and so he did in the 45th minute. Pearn has returned to the game after a six year gap, and his touch and finishing was almost as if he hadn’t left the scene at all.
At 1-1, the match was balanced on a knife edge, but it was the British team who decided to up the ante. The last 15 minutes saw wave after wave of relentless attacks from Great Britain, and they managed to score the decisive goal by Simon Mantell via their third penalty corner in quick succession and converted their dominance in possession and play in to goals – something we had failed to do after taking the lead. The result leaves us with the small matter of toppling Spain and three times defending champion Australia to reach the next round.
Winning the Champions Trophy was an unrealistic target even from our astoundingly deluded standards, but reaching the final four – under the new Champions Trophy format – was a viable goal. And you never know with our side, even after being downed by Great Britain, Pakistan can take confidence from their recent triumph against Australia in Australia and go for a repeat. When the odds are stacked against us we seem to perform at our optimum and this is exactly why Pakistan hockey is a nightmare for betting men. Finishing eighth in Beijing 2008 and then at the bottom of the pile in New Delhi 2010, we need to eliminate our phantoms of malfunction in global events and gradually reinstate ourselves as a top five hockey side.
The fact that we were once the undisputed monarchs of the hockey domain has, more often than not, meant that our national sport becomes the victim of its own successes. Pakistan hockey is always fastened together with the encumbrance of unrealistic expectations. The grandeur of the past is what we crave, and it’s almost as if we simply refuse to understand the term ‘transition’. Retracing the apex takes time, has a multitude of steps and requires patience; about time we comprehend this no-brainer.
Rafael Nadal dispelled the chants of him not being motivated enough these days – something he himself had admitted – by absolutely obliterating Juan Monaco in the first singles rubber in the Davis Cup final against Argentina on Friday. Monaco managed to take a meager four games in three sets as Rafa brought his best clay court tennis to the fore. This was Nadal’s 19th win in 20 singles rubbers for Spain, and 66th win in 67 best-of-five clay court encounters – seriously daunting numbers.
David Ferrer followed suit and put Spain 2-0 up and continued his unbeaten run on clay in Davis Cup rubbers; but the manner of his triumph over Del Potro was in stark contrast to Nadal’s landslide victory. Coming back from a two sets to one down, Ferrer showcased his emblematic tenacity to outdo Del Potro and take his nation on the brink of a third Davis Cup triumph in four years. Del Potro winning against Ferrer was what the Argentineans were hoping for, for them to have any chance of edging out Spain in their own backyard. Now, they need Del Potro to pull a rabbit, a zebra and an elephant out of the proverbial hat, by recovering in time for Sunday’s showdown against Nadal and beating him on clay. By the time you get hold of this piece, the doubles rubber would have had been played and a Spanish victory would seal the deal, and render any reversal in singles for the Argentineans, futile.
The Spanish side was fully backed by their zealous home supporters – every single one of the 28,000 in the Olympic Stadium. Ferrer especially fed off the fervent support that saw him to the finish line against Del Potro. Spain were overwhelming favourites before the tie and have now stamped their authority relentlessly.
Spain have been the dominant side in the Davis Cup ever since Nadal reached the zenith of his game in 2008, and has been aptly backed by a resurgent Ferrer as well. Spanish players might be under the shroud of artificial performance enhancement and accusations along the line, but there is no doubt about them being at the vanguard of global tennis. The expectations engulfing the Spanish players and their national side continues to tower high, and one gets the feeling this is going to be the trend in the near future as well.
The draw for Euro 2012 had the potential to throw up the mother of all group of deaths into the mix; however, that wasn’t the case to be. Nonetheless we do have the scrumptious prospect of watching the last two World Champions Spain and Italy taking on each other, France facing England, and Germany, Holland and Portugal being crammed in the same group.
Group A has a palpable east-European flavour with co-hosts Poland, 2004 champions Greece along with Russia and Czech-Republic in the pool. Russia would be the ones backed to reach the quarters, and the Russians should be absolutely ecstatic with the draw. All other sides would have a say in matters as well, and while the hosts can never be discounted in any sporting event, the Czech side might be the one sailing ashore.
Group B will be earmarked as the ‘Group of Death’ for Euro 2012, with powerhouses like Germany, Holland, and Portugal all vying for the two available quarter final slots – with Denmark no bunnies as well. Group B hinges on the performance of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo; if he brings his A-game into the tournament Portugal can topple anyone before them. But, indubitably, this is the toughest pool to call and with injuries and league seasons taking their toll eventually, the shape up to matters would be intriguing by the time the tournament kicks off in the summer.
Not being disrespectful to Ireland and Croatia, but Group C is all about Spain and Italy. The two will contest the biggest blockbuster in the group matches. Ireland and Croatia are well-drilled teams though, and have the potential to spring a surprise. As things stand, with the Spanish side – and its Catalonian spine – being overloaded with accolades, there is a concern that Spain might fail to live up to their ever-escalating standards of performances.
Group D has perennial underachievers England, joined by co-hosts Ukraine, Sweden and France. England would be overjoyed with the draw, with none of the three competitors not the most intimidating. France has fallen from the apex of global football following the retirements of their Golden Generation of 1998-2006 and with Ukraine co-hosting the tournament with Poland there is a serious concern that neither of the hosts might make it to the last eight. Sweden and England have played decisive encounters in global tournaments in the past, and there matchup here could be crucial as well.
The permutations are intriguing and the possibilities manifold, however with more than six months to go before the tournament kicks off, there are a lot of happenings that could influence matters in Poland in Ukraine. Rest assured the expectations would run the entire gamut from optimism to scepticism.