Sjoerd Marijne stood at the edge of the hockey pitch at the Maulana Bhasani hockey stadium in Dhaka. India had just won the Asia Cup beating Malaysia 2-1 in the final. In one corner, the Indian team posed with the trophy. One-by-one, the flood lights were being switched off. Marijne was not in a hurry. The Bhasani stadium authorities wanted to wrap things up. Summing up the win, Marijne said, "It's a first step with the men's team and it's good we won. But there is a lot to do before we can be considered a very good team." To go with the Asia Cup gold, Marijne then took the men's team to a bronze in the HWL Finals in Bhubaneswar. It was followed by a second-place finish in a double leg four-nation tournament in New Zealand.
Things seemed stable, a lengthy run in the offing for the affable Dutchman. India, then prepared for the Commonwealth Games. And, all of a sudden, like a house of cards, everything crashed as India finished 4th, outside the comfort zone of the podium. Marijne was sacked. And he went back to the women's team. The Dutchman kept quiet, no interviews, no off-the-record stuff that could find its way back into the public domain. There was an uncomfortable silence. The story was that the team didn't stand by Marijne in the review that happened after the CWG. The Dutchman was the scapegoat.
At the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Sjoerd Marijne and the Indian women's captain Rani Rampal lead the women's hockey team out. They have just stepped out of a flight that hopped its way from Hiroshima to Delhi. The women's team won the FIH Women's Series Finals beating Japan 3-1; now a step away from a place in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Nothing much has changed in Marijne. He is still rushed, listen's attentively to the question asked, asks you to repeat if he hasn't understood and then answers with the same passion that one saw at the Maulana Bhasani Stadium, two years back. But he is careful, on his guard. And unlike the men's team, he shepherds the women players. Ensures the players are together and constantly keeps an eye out for them. It's a family, tightly knit.
It's also in a way, the metamorphosis of Sjoerd Marijne, the hockey coach. How many in the past have come in as a women's team coach, after a while asked to take over the men's and then shunted back to the women's? For any coach anywhere in the world, it would be a blow to his dignity, his self-respect. But Marijne carries on, not only giving results but also making the team a tight unit, bound by skills, nationalism and the most important aspect, a healthy respect for each other's talent knowing fully well that success comes as a team and never as an individual. Whether it was the men's or women's, getting Marijne to praise an individual or a group is like asking him what happened at the 2018 Commonwealth Games " all you get is a shrug, wrapped in a wry smile.
He doesn't agree with the 'metamorphosis' part. "I am still the same," he says, repeating it twice. His methods might be the same, he would still create discomfort in a training session to make match situations comfortable for his team, he would want certain drills to be done again and again till 'he' feels okay about it. Yes, all that would never change for Marijne. But as a man in a nation where a word is as shallow as a drying river, any person, not only Marijne would wear a couple of extra shields.
" Sjoerd Marijne (@SjoerdMarijne) June 23, 2019
Lalremsiami stands a few feet away in the corner. She has a flight to catch to Mizoram. A day before the semi-final, her father passed away. Ignoring the option of flying back, Lalremsiami played on. She wanted to ensure India qualified and she wanted it for her father, a tribute from a daughter to a parent. Marijne signs a sheet, probably an official release of a player. Then he hugs her, a coach to a player, human being to a human being knowing that a part of his team is going into the unknown, going back to a home where she will feel a void, she has never experienced.
"I gave her space to find her way," says Marijne. "Everybody came to her room. It made the team stronger. She dived in front of the ball when Japan had a PC. She played with her heart." There is a sense of pride, easily discernible in Marijne. It comes when the coach knows his team will do anything for him. And also, the team knows that Marijne will stretch every sinew, look at the tiniest detail to make them win. It is also a sentiment one never experienced with Marijne when he was with the men's team. Maybe, he never showed it. Probably, never felt it.
He does admit that the journey has been eventful. From the time he took over the women's team, the heart-break at the World Cup quarter-finals, the agony at the Asian Games final where they lost to Japan and to deal with a fourth quarter where they had the numbers behind the ball but couldn't pierce a Japanese defence that was a 15-minute lesson in grit . It still bothers Marijne. "Looking back has no meaning and I never like looking back but after the Hiroshima final, I did think for a few moments 'what if we had won that final?' and we would have qualified for the Olympic Games."
Does he at times think like an 'Indian' coach, if ever there is such a definition, he smiles and says, "I think like a Dutch coach, but I adapt to the culture where I am working. We worked on the Indian defence and if you see the numbers, we have very few circle penetrations against us. In terms of skill, I ask them to increase speed and pass the ball. But I know they like a one-to-one situation, so I let them do it. One needs to mix cultures and bring out a winning blend."
The Indian captain Rani Rampal doesn't unnecessarily wax eloquent on Marijne's coaching. She is subtle, almost like the soft-touches she brings as a centre-forward in the team. Or like the direct hit that got India it's opening goal against Japan in the final. It wasn't given a whack by Rani, but the accuracy and the speed of the hit caught the Japanese defence unaware.
Indian women hockey player Lalremsiami's father expired when India was to play a crucial semifinal at Hiroshima that would determine if India's Olympics dream would be alive. She told coach, 'I want to make my father proud. I want to stay, play and make sure India qualifies🇮🇳🙏 pic.twitter.com/V9tlE84z4K
" Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) June 23, 2019
"When he (Marijne) came back to the team, he knew what was required," says Rani. "There was no confusion in the team either. We knew what structure to play in. The only focus was on basics. He worked on the team. He brought in the youngsters and more than anyone of us, he feels that the graph of the team needs to keep going up."
Rani feels the same regret that Marijne had about the Asian Games final. "The regret will always be there," says Rani. "If we had won the Asian Games final, there would be no stress. The moment we realised we had beaten Japan, the thought came 'why didn't we win in Jakarta?'"
Coaches do traverse troubled waters. For Marijne, his time with the men's team would always bring forth a bag of mixed emotions. He does admit that there was regret early on. "In the beginning, yes, but now not anymore. I didn't expect a lot of things that happened. But I am no one to judge. I am more reserved in telling things. I am a coach who likes to trust people and that was broken."
Marijne is a coach in search of inefficiencies - wants to eradicate them, create a balanced work ethic with a structure of efficient defending, distribution, possession and chance conversion. The Dutchman is not radically altering anything. He is instilling belief, that age old theory which works better than the best anabolic steroid or stimulant.