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Janneke Schopman Exclusive: Quitting Indian Hockey and The Missing Rani Rampal

Janneke Schopman speaks to The Quint after resigning as Indian women's hockey coach. 

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The americano stood there. Untouched. For close to an hour. Symbolism of a last stand. Janneke Schopman, her face, like a ridge cut out of a mountain, spoke. Like never before. It wasn’t an outpouring. More like cutting yourself up, letting the world watch while you bleed. It wasn’t a diatribe either. It was in a way, self-flagellation.

So, when it was announced on 23 February evening, that she, the Indian women’s hockey coach had put in her papers, had resigned from a job of creating a team that would walk on and off the pitch with confidence, it was yet another coach, men or women, swallowed by the system; a structure divided from within, which rightfully should always put results as the test of the efficiency of a coach but at the same time have the intellectual capacity of delving deep and accepting its own myopic way of functioning.

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Janneke Schopman speaks to The Quint after resigning as Indian women's hockey coach. 

Former Dutch star Janneke Schopman had been coaching the Indian women's hockey team.

(Photo: PTI)

Schopman had flaws, yes.

Like several foreign coaches before, she couldn’t understand the cultural under-currents and why she was treated as a ‘woman’ despite holding the top job. She saw two faces in the federation – One, the Hockey India President Dilip Tirkey, a legendary player and Olympic captain, who has seen a parade of coaches in his own career and so understands the need for someone to be in the seat for the long-haul. The rest represented the other face – not really result oriented but more allegiance arbiters. Schopman, the outsider, couldn’t win over the good old boys and become a ‘Yes Man’.

Janneke Schopman speaks to The Quint after resigning as Indian women's hockey coach. 

The Indian women's hockey team could not qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

(Photo: PTI)

Missing the Paris Olympics Cut

Yet, one wonders if India had beaten Germany in the Olympic qualifiers' semi-final at Ranchi which went into a shoot-out, or beaten Japan for 3rd/4th, would she still be at the camp Bengaluru, arranging the training sessions, delving into the Pro-League data sheets?

“I couldn't win this fight as much as I wanted to. I mean, I think we're good enough to qualify and I blame myself also for not qualifying,” she says.

The americano is still untouched.

Yet, it was during the Pro League at Rourkela where a statement to The Indian Express let the cat among the pigeons. “I come from a culture where women are respected and valued. I don’t feel that here. Coming from the Netherlands, having worked in the USA, this country is extremely difficult as a woman, coming from a culture where you can have an opinion and it’s valued.”

India isn’t exactly hospitable territory for hockey coaches, men, or women. One of the greatest coaches in the world, Australia’s 1986 World Cup winning captain, Ric Charlesworth, was appointed as India’s expert coach and technical head in 2007, immediately prompting the then Indian Hockey Federation treasurer and a few members to remark, “Yeh toh aurton ke coach hain (He is a women’s coach)”.

Ric was forced to quit after a while, fed up with the then federation, IHF, (Indian Hockey Federation) machinations. He went back and joined the Australian’s men’s team as their chief coach and came back to Delhi for the Commonwealth Games where the ‘aurton ke coach’ beat the India men’s team 8-0 in the final!

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Janneke Schopman speaks to The Quint after resigning as Indian women's hockey coach. 

Schopman was part of Sjoerd Marijne's support staff during the Tokyo Olympics

(Photo: Twitter)

Having worked under Sjoerd Marijne as the analytics coach in Tokyo where India finished 4th, wasn’t Schopman aware of the warning signs? Of a federation where brazenness and machismo went hand in hand?

“Yes. That’s the short answer. I’ve seen his troubles as well. I just saw this tremendous potential in this team, and I thought we’re only scratching the surface here in Tokyo. He (Sjoerd) took them to a better place. I thought there was so much left on set, so much hidden potential. And I thought, yeah, why not? This is such a unique opportunity. I strongly believe that this team was destined for, I don't know, not top three, but definitely top five.”

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Janneke Schopman speaks to The Quint after resigning as Indian women's hockey coach. 

Rani Rampal captained India at the Tokyo Olympics but was mostly missing in action in this Olympic cycle.

Image: Hockey India. 

The Case of the Missing Rani Rampal

Then there was the proverbial twist in the tale. The shadow of Rani Rampal. Plenty of fissures within the team and a dogged pursuit by the media that followed Schopman on and off the pitch - Why had the talismanic player been left out of the squad after Tokyo or not played enough in big tournaments.

The ‘big player syndrome’ is not new to Indian hockey. Flip the pages, especially in men’s hockey and you will see the names of Sardar Singh, Dhanraj Pillay, Pargat Singh, Mohammed Shahid right into the 80s, 70s up till Prithipal Singh, a three-time Olympic medallist.

Schopman’s fingers wrap itself around the styrofoam cup of her americano. The coffee must still be warm.

"I think she (Rani) is still an issue because she has a lot of influence and she, I think, played an immense part in India, in women's hockey and the development of it. After Tokyo, I told her, I think it's time. She played Tokyo injured which she then didn't tell our staff, me or Sjoerd.

“I don't think she was good enough to play the World Cup. And that was a message she didn't want to hear. And she didn't agree. And that's her prerogative because she's a player and she can agree or disagree with that.

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“I supported her recovery, I supported her rehab. So then, yeah, she was fit, to be fair. After that, she was fit and she stayed fit. But I just didn't think she was good enough and I know that's not what people want to hear. She can't run when we have the ball. I took her to South Africa. That was a tour that, to be honest, I had to fight with the selectors to take her and that is also what no one believes. But I said, look, let's give her one last opportunity.

“We play the best team (Netherlands) in the world and we're playing South Africa. I did my own statistical analysis. I literally went through all the games and looked at her on-the-ball movement, her off-the-ball movement, her impact. Specifically in the Netherlands games because I thought that would be valuable for me because that is where I want our team to go. And even, yeah, and to be fair, she was the least of our forwards. So, I can't tell you anything else or just that that was a statistical thing that I did myself. I can back it up with numbers. I thought it was time, you know. I know she would never accept it at that point.

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“But if, for me, a player with her stature I'm not going to pick in the foreseeable future in the A-team because there are better strikers out there that can run more than is required in the current international game. Then I have the obligation, I think, as a coach to make a tough decision. And I did."

And I know she didn't agree. And I know she still wants back. And she knows as long as I'll be here, she probably won't be. And I feel bad for her. Because I don't think she deserves this. And on the other hand, I'm like, you have the opportunity to bow out in your own ways as well and you chose not to and that's not my fault.”

Schopman stops for a while, trying to regain her thoughts; Schopman against a martyred iconic player; at this moment, she does seem a lone figure dwarfed. The fingers drum silently on the coffee cup.

But did Rampal have influence on some players from the outside and did it hamper your working, I ask? “I don't know officially, but yes. A hundred percent. Do players ever say that? No. But do I think so? A hundred percent because the way I have come to know India, there's a lot of respect for senior players. I do not lie to everyone. I've never lied to Rani (Rampal) either. She didn't like what I had to say.

“I’m an honest person. If I don't think you're good enough, you're going to hear it from me and it's not that I don't care. I do care, but I have to make a decision. And that's the tough part about coaching. I felt she had influence, yes and I think she, of course, didn't want us to succeed and again, do I understand that? Not really.

Janneke Schopman speaks to The Quint after resigning as Indian women's hockey coach. 

Rani Rampal captained India at the 2019 Tokyo Olympics.

(Photo: PTI)

A Broken System?

It’s been close to an hour. The americano has probably gone cold. Yet, she wraps her fingers around it, drawing whatever warmth she can from the Styrofoam. In Hockey India President Dilip Tirkey, she had support and Tirkey believes she had improved the system, the play. He always said ‘results can’t always decide. It takes time.’

Then she says: “To be fair to Dilip, he intervenes.” And then, she herself asks, a question thrown at nobody or maybe everybody in the hockey eco-system.

“If I have to submit my plans and then I see the program being sent to SAI. So, I don't get a response and then I see the program sent to SAI and I respond, and I say, the changes I wanted are not in there. Can I ask why not? And can I ask who decided to not do it? I just want to know. No answer. No answer. Three days later, I send another email. So how can I work here then? How can I work if you don't even dignify me with a response to my email?"

“I understand I always can't get my way. But you just chuck it away. I have had sent proposals for who we wanted, who we should play and why, when we should play and why, when the domestic tournament should be held and why and I would gladly support it, and I would gladly send my players, how you should set up the domestic tournaments, how you should do selections. No response. Not interested.”

Results do count. Yes, qualifying for Paris was very important. Playing the system was important. Understanding the ‘hidden influence’ was equally important.

Schopman grabs the americano, saying, “have to go now” and smiles for the first time in an hour.

The moulding of young minds can take a back seat. Suddenly, Indian women’s hockey, despite the cacophony around ‘not qualifying for Paris’ seems so much more frigid and isolated.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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