The Dutch set-piece master

The Dutch set-piece master

Drag flicker Taeke Taekema dons an important role in the Netherlands line-up

The Dutch set-piece master

hit man: The Netherlands’ Taeke Taekema is one of the most feared drag-flickers in the world. AFP

Blame it on set piece skills mastered through years and years of hard work.

Purists might turn their faces away when the ball thunders into the net at great pace, even endangering the lives of those defenders on the goalline. But that is the reality in modern hockey – more often than not, drag-flicks get you goals and goals determine where the team ends up in a tournament.

No wonder then, Taekema dons an important role in the Netherlands’ line-up. The Dutch have stick-wielders of class up front, led by the indomitable Teun de Nooijer but when the team is in trouble, struggling to unlock the defensive ways of the opposition, they know which way to turn – as it happened in their World Cup opener against Argentina in New Delhi.

Three sizzling strikes from the Taekema stick floored the Argentines completely and the Dutchmen had made a flying start to their campaign. It happened again on Friday when the 30-year-old crashed through the defences of Canada, fetching his team the all-important first goal in a 6-0 drubbing.

“It takes plenty of hard work to master it. It’s very hard to achieve control and variations in hitting penalty corners. It is all about finding the right rhythm now,” said Taekema, who is playing in his third World Cup.

Taekema’s two goals against Canada took his tally to 19 from 19 World Cup matches, making him third in the list of all-time scorers in Cup history. A mere glance at that list is enough to convince one that he is following a great Dutch tradition.

Paul Litjens occupies the top spot, with 26 goals, followed by Ties Kruize with 21. Along the way, Taekema overtook another Dutch short-corner specialist – Floris Jan Bovelander, who has 17 goals to his credit.

Deadly strikes

Litjens, nicknamed the ‘Executioner’ because of his deadly strikes, played four World Cups and netted 267 goals in 177 internationals. He also topped the charts at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, slamming in 11 goals. Going by the rate at which he is scoring, Taekema might well overtake Litjens’ record at this World Cup itself.

Individual accomplishments, though, are far from Taekema’s mind. “For me, there is no individual goal in hockey. What matters is whether your team is winning or not,” said Taekema, whose first love was football. “My brother and sister were into hockey and that is how I started playing the sport,” he said.

India do not have fond memories of Taekema. At the last World Cup at Monchengladbach, Germany, it was this man who broke India’s back with five goals as they suffered a 1-6 mauling. But Taekema acknowledges the importance of India in world hockey. “India and Pakistan are very important for hockey. The teams are not doing well now but hockey needs them to come up,” said Taekema, who has high regard for another short-corner specialist of our times, Pakistan’s Sohail Abbas.

Perhaps to underline Taekema’s point about hockey being a team game, the Netherlands haven’t been as successful in recent times as they have been in the past, despite the presence of the short-corner ace in the team. They are three-time world champions but their last triumph came in 1998 while the Olympic gold medal last adorned their showcase in 2000.

“The game is not all about penalty corners. You have to have a good mixture of field moves and short-corners,” asserts Taekema, the top-scorer at the 2006 World Cup with 11 goals. The Dutchmen were seventh then while at the Beijing Olympics, they were fourth, after losing a closely fought semifinal to Germany in tie-breaker. Ironically, Taekema missed the crucial stroke.

Those are painful memories for the man who is still in the hunt for the biggest prizes in the sport – the Olympic gold medal and the World Cup. Next Olympic Games is two years away but New Delhi offers the best chance for Taekema to lay his hands on the World Cup. It is indeed a team game but if he can strike the winning goal for the Dutch, Taekema will be more than happy.

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