The luxury for Graham Reid, if one can call it that, going into the two-match Olympic qualifiers in which winner takes all, namely a spot in Tokyo 2020, is that Reid can think beyond the Kalinga. With no disrespect to Russia as an opponent, knowing fully well that matches in the Olympic Qualifying in different parts of the world have run close, it will still be a tall order, probably the upset of the year or even the last decade if Russia put it across India. Strange things do happen in sport. But for India to lose to Russia would be akin to not turning up for the match.
“It’s not about rankings,” said Pakistan coach Khawaja Junaid, before their qualifying game against the Netherlands. The 4-4 draw, which Pakistan led 4-3 with a minute to go, might have given credence to the cliché mouthed by Junaid. Except for the fact that the next day, the Dutch thrashed Pakistan 6-1 and booked their ticket to Tokyo. Sitting in the sub-continent, Reid wouldn’t take any chances. Small wonder that the team playing Russia is a team that the Indian coach might be taking to Tokyo, bar injuries.
Russia have only one way out of the two-match imbroglio.
Hold. Hold. Pray.
The last time both met, India put ten past them. Same stadium. Same time. Different tournament.
So, what has changed?
The Indian team has got better.
The Russians would hold with a better defensive structure.
The pointers for Russian coach Vladimir Konkin are in the first quarter of the match against India played in June. India’s finishing wasn’t sharp. Russia took the edge off and created movement in the mid-zone. The first two PCs for India were also off the mark.
Andrey Kuraev displayed good skills while Alexander Skiperskiy controlled the midfield. In that first quarter, while India tried to get the momentum, Sergey Lepeshkin saw his scoop miss the Indian goal by inches; Krishan Pathak had been left stranded in the middle of the striking circle. At the end of the first quarter, India had led 1-0, off a deflected goal from Akashdeep Singh.
Reid wouldn’t want a repeat of that. It would be better to demolish Russia in the first match to defuse any pressure situation arising in the second. Complacency would be the last thing on Reid’s mind, even though he must be hugely confident about the result.
“If you look at last week’s games in the qualifiers, it’s the first thing you would see. My message has been pretty much the same ever since I have joined the team. Always treat everyone with respect, like you are playing the best in the world. We have prepared as well as we could and are ready.”
For Varun Kumar, missing out is not a blow except for the penalty corner department where he is a good second flicker. But now with Harmanpreet and Rupinder Pal Singh, the latter in the team more for his PC prowess than field play, the signal is quite clear – get early goals and close the match.
India have had it tough in the past during the qualifying tournaments. The two that immediately spring to mind is the 1991 Olympic Qualifying that happened in Auckland where India were almost out, till Malaysia beat Belgium 5-3 for India to sneak back in on a better goal difference than Belgium. A lesser score-line would have ensured India not reaching Barcelona. And then the 2008 Beijing Qualification tournament in Santiago, Chile, where India lost twice to Great Britain; 2-3 in the round-robin and then 0-2 in the final. With just the winner going through, India were left stranded. Not a single Indian coaching staff was in Kuala Lumpur for the year-ending 2007 Champions Trophy where Great Britain were playing before going in March 2008 to Chile. A lack of preparedness in terms of understanding Great Britain and how they would play brought about India’s undoing.
That doesn’t seem likely at the Kalinga.
“Ever since we have come here, we have always said never underestimate the opponent,” said Indian captain Manpreet Singh. “SV Sunil gave the example of 2008. Our mindset should only be about winning. All seniors like Rupinder or Sreejesh take all the players along. They tell the youngsters don’t take it easy. That's what we have been discussing for the last three weeks. Don't underestimate Russia or look at their rankings.”
India are ranked fifth while Russia are 22nd.
The scenario is much closer when it comes to the Indian women’s team; India are ninth with the USA 13th in the FIH rankings.
With the Indian women’s hockey team assembled at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, ready for their two-match challenge against the USA with the winner getting a flight ticket to Tokyo 2020, a few quotes from previous Indian women coaches’ just might give a perspective to this all-important encounter; a contest that in so many ways would decide the next four years of the women’s game. But a win against the compact and very disciplined Americans could unleash the potential that the women have always shown – whether it was in finishing fourth at the 1980 Moscow Olympics; gold at the 1982 Asian Games; gold and silver at the 2002 and 2006 Commonwealth Games and just recently the quarter-final finish at the 2018 World Cup and the silver at the 2018 Asian Games.
Rewind 37 years, 1982, when the Indian women won the Asian Games under Balkishen Singh, who later said: “The potential in the women’s team is huge. They come with skill and a natural talent that not many teams have. It’s only a case of understanding the technical and physical aspects of the sport.” It’s not surprising that Eliza Nelson, who captained India to their only Asian Games gold in 82’ said that if Balkishen was there in 1980, the women’s team would have been on the Olympic podium.
GS Bhangu, under whom India won the 2002 Commonwealth Games gold, once said the difference between the top women nations and India was the question of adaptability in understanding ‘modern methods.’ MK Kaushik, who came later and coached the team to a silver in the 2006 Commonwealth Games felt "sustained exposure and playing with the top teams" would reduce the "fear factor."
Coming back after the QF finish at the 2018 World Cup, Rani Rampal had spoken on the lessons learnt and that India were ready to move big-time into the Olympic Games and perform.
“So, at the moment, our goal is that we qualify for the next Olympics. In the World Cup, our team was very close. Our team had the confidence that they can defeat the other team. Now, the players are not afraid that they are playing with a team better than them. Nowadays, there is no difference in men and women's hockey. The team that plays well can beat any opposition. So, our goal is to finish in the top four in the next 2020 Olympics.”
Qualifying is not alien to Rani. Way back in 2008, she made her debut at the age of 13 and 135 days in Kazan at the 2008 Olympic qualifier. In her first match, India beat Russia 3-1 with her scoring on debut. Incidentally, in that qualifier which had six teams with the winner going to Beijing, USA had beaten India 4-0. Eleven years, later, the Rani one sees on the field is a thinking player, a forward with the vision of a midfielder. Not surprising that sometimes, she does fall back, not with the intention of defence but of carrying the ball for pacier and faster players like Nikki Pradhan, Monika, Neha Goyal, Navjot Kaur, Vandana, and Lalremsiami.
Going into the past is self-defeating. And Sjoerd Marijne realises that. It takes more than just patience and perseverance to retain your sanity when a federation uses you like a pawn — women’s coach, then men’s and then women’s again – and still focus on a job that is not only difficult and demanding but takes more out of the coach than anyone else. After winning the FIH Women’s Series Final beating Japan 3-1, Marijne said, “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 (Asian Games) that final?’ and we would have qualified for the Olympic Games.”
The loss in the final at the Asian Games had badly hurt the Indian team. Marijne was downcast. It wasn’t just about getting a direct entry with almost two years in hand for training and preparing for what is hockey’s biggest stage. The issue at that time, that moment in Jakarta was about keeping the team together in mind, body, and spirit. A win would have been like rocket fuel. Looking at the downcast players, one understood the extent of work that Marijne needed to do to make them believe again.
It wasn’t so difficult either. Rani Rampal is a huge supporter of Marijne’s way of coaching. “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 the 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.”
It has gone up – skill-wise, physically it’s one of the fittest, and even during play, though they tend to group up sometimes, the way they create a structure is massively encouraging. Against the USA, the team will have to discard the past. Eight times both have faced each other in the qualifying for either the Olympic Games or the World Cup and each time, the Americans have won. In their last match at the World Cup, India drew 1-1.
Rani, the Indian captain, said forgetting the Asian Games loss hasn’t been easy. “After that, we have focussed on this. We are very excited to play in front of a big crowd. Yes, I think the fans here are very passionate. They are the 12th player and we will feed off that energy.”
Sjoerd Marijne, practical as ever, spoke about looking at this match by match. “We want to go there (Tokyo). We believe, as a team, that we can do better than previous Olympics. But we have to go there first. It’s not only about finishing but also technical things. They have grown as a person. They are smart."
“It’s match by match. Saturday you will know if you have qualified or not. We do match by match. The girls are also ready. You can’t look further than one match.”
The American coach, Janneke Schopman, a former Olympic and World Champion with the Dutch team believes experience will play a part. “I think the Indian team has a lot of experience,” she said. “India have a lot of advantage. We only have three players from the team that went to Rio. Experience does matter.”
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Updated Date: Nov 01, 2019 11:44:08 IST