Bhubaneswar: We all know sports can be cruel. Especially when Olympics dreams are shattered.
India, Japan and South Africa were favourites to qualify for the semi-finals of the FIH World Series in Bhubaneswar. As expected, they all did make it along with the US, but there were heartbreaks for other nations. Both Poland and Russia were seeking to get back to the elite level. Both countries did have a chance, they fought hard in Bhubaneswar's extreme conditions, but it was not enough. Their Olympics hopes are now in the back burner.
Playing their crossover match against Japan, Poland were off to a good start. They scored the first goal of the match against all the pressure from their opponents. Japan equalised, and minutes later, took the lead in the second quarter. Having taken the lead in the match and the fact that Japan were the better side, it seemed like Poland will be blown apart. But just before the half-time, Poland scored their second to stay in the match.
Poland were eventually blown apart. Four more Japanese goals in the second-half saw the end of Poland. The final scoreline read 6-2, cruelly as it may sound, but reflecting the actual picture.
Polish head coach Karol Sniezek walked into the mixed zone with a distraught look on his face. Similar to his players when they passed the waiting media, avoiding any eye-contact with reporters and cameras.
"Our target was to be in the first four. We expected to play the crossover match, but not against Japan. We though Japan will win the other group but that didn't happen. Physically, it was really difficult for us to play in the tournament. We made progression game-by-game. We committed mistakes in the second half of the game. And that's the end of our Olympics dream," Sniezek said after he reluctantly agreed to speak about the defeat.
Physically, it was difficult for Poland in this tournament. Why? The answer is obvious.
"I think it's not normal to play at 5 pm in this weather. I don't know who made the schedule, but for us, it was really difficult," fumed Sniezek as Poland's Olympic dreams were crushed on the hottest day of the tournament.
"We expected this (weather). But we don't have many opportunities to train for this weather. We were training in Malaysia for 10 days in March and then we came back to Europe for two months. We don't have the budget to go to Australia and play games there," Sniezek, who also has a catering business in his hometown, said.
"I have my own business as well. Hockey is not really professional in Poland. But we keep fighting to play in the Olympics, World Cup and other big tournaments. We still have to wait for that."
It was also the end for another European nation on Wednesday.
Russia took on South Africa. A lower-ranked side against a team that played the World Cup at the same venue last year. The difference was there in terms of ranking, but that's that. When it came to quality, both Russia and South Africa were equally matched on the day of their tussle.
Russia, in fact, dominated the game, winning more possession than South Africa in three quarters. They had penetrated the circle number of times than their opponents. They had more penalty corners than South Africa. As the final hooter rang, both set of players fell on the court, exhausted with the scoreline reading in favour of the South Africans. 2-1.
South Africa opened the scoring the 40th minute. Russia made it 1-1 thanks to a penalty corner. The clincher came just seven minutes before the full-time, with Ryan Julius scoring the second for the African side. Russia pressed hard, created chances in the final few minutes, but South Africa held on and took home the win.
"We are disappointed. I think this game was even. We had more opportunities to score but didn't convert our chances. It is what it is," Russia's Pavel Golubev said.
Golubev, though, is more optimistic about the future. He says the Hockey World Series will be a good experience for young players in the squad and they will learn from this tournament and come back stronger in the future tournaments.
"We have many young players in our team so it's a big experience for them. They will perform better in the upcoming tournaments and qualifying events. I don't know when they are but they'll perform better."
After Russia's first match in the tournament against India, Golubev spoke about the heat, but he didn't want to say that as an excuse for not making it to the semi-final. "We came here to fight. Our target was to reach the semis so we pushed as hard as we can. But it's bad luck, we didn't manage to do that."
For both Poland and Russia, the next battle will begin at the Euro Hockey Championship II, the second level of the European field hockey championships for the nations. Once again, the journey to the Olympics will be a long and arduous one, but both teams can take heart from their spirited performances in Bhubaneswar.
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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 12:34:53 IST