Hockey’s Olympic Berths Earned, But Real Works Begins Now
Indian hockey’s long-lived romance with the Olympic Games is perhaps one of the most enduring stories in the country’s sporting history. There have been individual glories and tales of bravery and awe in India’s 120 years of Olympics participation, but the raw emotions evoked by the hockey teams at the Games remain unmatched.
India’s men’s and women’s teams earned their tickets to the 2020 Tokyo Games after a topsy-turvy, nerve-wracking, extremely emotional and fighting performances over the last 48-hours at the Kalinga Hockey Stadium in Bhubaneswar. 120 minutes to be exact, that decided the fates of the home teams who blew hot and cold in their pursuit of the Olympic berths.
Indian women defeated USA 6-5 on aggregate (5-1 and 1-4) in the twin matches, while men beat Russia 11-3 (4-2 and 7-1).
The women’s was a story of grit, fighting spirit and emotions. Not the ones to enjoy the same limelight and media focus as their male counterparts, India’s women’s first participation at the Olympic Games was in 1980. It took them 36 years to step their foot on an Olympic arena again when they qualified for the 2016 Rio Games but finished last. Four years later, they have booked their tickets again and that underlines their slow but steady progress.
Rani Rampal’s team has been consistent since last year. Under their Dutch coach, Sjoerd Marijne, they have had noteworthy performances and together, they have broken many shackles. Fitness has improved, medals and results have begun to show up — a silver at the 2018 Asian Games and a quarter-final finish at the World Cup — but the biggest plus has been the team’s mental toughness.
They are no longer the team that used to get rattled under pressure or felt overwhelmed by higher-ranked opponents. This bunch truly knows how to play to their strengths, with skipper Rampal at the heart of it all. Her continuous presence, top-notch performance and the ability to keep the girls together has rubbed on to the team, who are a confident lot.
Against world number 13 USA at the Olympic qualifiers, a team ranked four places above them, India knew it would be a test of their character. The opening day saw India thrash USA 5-1 after fighting off opening jitters. Day Two needed them to play calmly and smartly, but then perhaps the occasion — none of the team members had played an international match at home before — and the fear of losing got the better of them, momentarily.
In the second leg, USA dictated terms in the first two quarters and were ahead 4-0. With the aggregate scores now levelled 5-5, and just 12 minutes separating the two teams from an Olympic berth, India dug deep. Marijne told the girls to play without fear and they adhered. Rani scored the decisive goal, carrying India to their third Olympics ever.
Coach Marijne perhaps gave the hashtag of the year when he tweeted post the heart-stopping game, “What a match!! But only one thing counts, WE ARE GOING TO TOKYO!!!!! #canweplayonlythesecondhalf.”
From sitting on the sidelines for 36 years, the women have now made it to back-to-back Olympic Games. And they know they can only get better from here.
“A lot of players, especially for youngsters it was the first opportunity. I think the girls put in a lot of energy till the last moment. Today also after conceding we did not give up. We knew we had it in us,” is how Rani summed it up after her decisive goal that earned many applauds.
Coming Out of the ‘Qualifier’ Fixation
After messing up their chance at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta where a gold would have handed them a direct Tokyo ticket, the men took the long route of competing in the FIH Qualifiers.
Since January 2019, the top teams were competing in the Pro League — also an Olympic qualifier tournament — while India were left to spend time in camps and playing tournaments like the Azlan Shah that lacked quality opposition. After winning the pre-qualifiers at home, they were drawn a relatively easy opponent in the 22nd-ranked Russia.
But then with an Olympic berth at stake and nerves at play, India was found wanting in the opening match. A 4-2 result in the hosts’ favour meant Day Two could be anybody’s game. On Saturday in the second leg, Russia scored within the opening 25 seconds reducing the margin to 3-4. India drew from their experience to post a massive 7-1 win and an overall 11-3 aggregate to qualify for the Olympics, but it wasn’t all that easy.
The real story here, however, is not of India’s qualification. But rather how despite years of scientific training, best of coaches and facilities being available, experienced players, a huge team of support staff including analytic coaches and scientific trainers, India had been unable to get out of the fixation of just qualifying for major tournaments rather than turning their focus on winning them.
India was among the top five hockey-playing nations since 2017 but that has not reflected in their results. Let us not forget that India fielded their best team here, yet struggled to stave off Russia, a nation that has never qualified for an Olympics or the World Cup.
It could be argued that there was a lot at stake and Russia had nothing to lose, but then every major tournament requires calm nerves and top performances. The same old story of raising hope and ensuing heartbreaks at major tournaments is becoming too repetitive. Indian men’s stature in world hockey and preparations with best of coaches and facilities calls for better performances and setting bigger goals.
The last major title came at the 1980 Olympic Games and since then, it has been a tale of more misses than hits. If anything, the team should now be able to start winning at the big stage. They have given some fine displays — a sparkling gold at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games and a silver medal at the 2018 Champions Trophy that featured top teams — but such performances have been far and few. And a medal on the big stage is still awaited.
Need to Go Back to the Drawing Board
The next nine months will be crucial for the men's and women’s teams. There is not much time left for planning and preparations and details would have to be chalked out soon.
The men’s team will play the Pro League that will pit them against top teams and also involve a lot of travel. The women, on the other hand, have some exposure trips ahead of the Tokyo Games. But what will be crucial is proper planning, execution and smart training focused on key issues.
There are many grey areas for both teams to iron out and the federations will also have to keep the core group intact, and not go for many changes. Same could be said of the coaches too, who will require constant support and could do without the sword of ‘sacking’ looming large over them.
The results at Bhubaneswar might call for celebrations for some but it would be wise to ditch those and go back to the drawing board. “We begin Olympic preparations on Sunday morning,” said Marijne.
Men’s coach Graham Reid spoke of a podium finish at Tokyo. “You always dream of an Olympics podium finish. I was lucky to win one as a player and those memories are things you hold on to. That’s what we need to bring to this team and give it a big shot.”
The first step towards the Olympics has been taken… but the real work has to begin now.
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