Hockey Junior World Cup 2016: India on verge of history as they battle fast-improving Belgium in final

After years of under-performing – 15 to be exact – the Indian juniors are a step away from making history and go level with the class of 2001 that set fire to Hobart, lifting the Junior World Cup for the first time in Indian hockey history. Optimists would point to a year of ‘going forward’ when hockey, in a way, triumphed – picking up a silver at the London Champions Trophy for the first time and then reaching the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics; incidentally being beaten there by Belgium. The seniors, apart from tweeting best wishes, would fervently wish that this junior side gains a modicum of revenge for that 1-3 defeat. But wishing and hoping are just a part of an athlete’s journey; the main part is finishing the task and giving some cheer to the nation as it enters into a New Year full of hope, and holding a World Cup will only add to the joy.

Indian coach Harendra Singh is on a second World Cup mission – the first one ending in a heart-break when his side lost to Australia in the 2005 semifinals after being 2-0 up and then losing the bronze medal game. “I am not haunted by that memory,” he said. “But it will be very satisfying to win the World Cup in Lucknow. The nation and the boys deserve it.”

 Hockey Junior World Cup 2016: India on verge of history as they battle fast-improving Belgium in final

Image Credit: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

Belgium, the Red Lions or cubs, if you may, are already delirious at reaching the final and playing in front of a packed stadium. It’s a luxury not often enjoyed in Europe. But of late Belgian hockey has been seeing a rise in fan presence after their teams started winning internationally. Belgium coach Jeroen Baart said, “I want my players to experience what it’s like playing in such an atmosphere.” With the seniors already having won the Olympic silver, the juniors want to take that one big step that would in a way, establish Belgian hockey for the next decade or so.

Harendra understands that Belgium tactically will rotate their style. It’s often noticed in their club games and even during the 2014 World Cup in Holland, that they started furiously often forcing the opposition to change tactics in the first five minutes or so. And then they would rotate the ball, holding on, not allowing the ball to the opponent, increasing frustration in their ranks. It was at Valencia in the 4-nation junior tournament with the scores tied at 1-1, that there was a sudden energy burst with the Belgian goals coming in the 49th, 56th and 57th minutes. In eight minutes, they had dismantled the Indians. Oltmans, here in Lucknow helping Harendra, would remember Rio very clearly. They held the ball for so long sometimes it made the Indian side look innocuous.

But Lucknow, evening, and a packed stadium could push the Indians to the summit. “I have already told the boys to enjoy the experience,” Harendra says. “We are prepared for some time for this occasion itself. It’s a big game and big players will come to the fore. Earlier in the tournament, we have been a goal down and then come back.”

There is no doubt that the hunger is there. After conceding, India is more dangerous; ironically, when down, they have thrown caution to the winds and increased the pace and intensity of the game. Gurjant’s goal against Australia was a moment that coaches sometimes describe as the ‘miracle point.’ Gurjant, after being fed by Simranjeet Singh, ran down the straight like a sprinter and in the same motion hit a reverse shot that the Australian goalkeeper had no clue about. It shook Australia. It lifted India. “Speed is the essence,” says Col Balbir, bronze-medallist at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. “If they keep the momentum through the match, Belgium will be forced to defend.” It’s the classic coaching manual that was shown to India in Rio. Keep attacking and make them defend. Eventually, India couldn’t come out of the hole and time ran out.”

Col Balbir does admit that Belgium are more structured and disciplined. In a layman’s language, Belgium will not fall prey to emotional upheavals. India, on the other hand, has a tendency to play to the crowd and when under pressure, they at times, try and dribble out of trouble. “You cannot hang onto the ball,” says Col Balbir. “It happened in the 1st half against Australia and we paid for it. Against Belgium, you cannot afford to be lax.”

Field goals should be the essence of this Big Final. Belgium has eight field goals to India’s nine. And one does believe that if the penalty corner battery under Harmanpreet Singh can work even converting 50 percent, India should be home and dry. Mandeep has three goals and his presence is a constant threat. Against Australia, his reverse hit gave India the lead. But what was striking was his presence of mind of not moving to his natural scoring right but using the left reverse to hit catching the goalkeeper off guard.

Col Balbir believes the team has certain flaws in the defence and it will be up to Harmanpreet to keep frayed nerves at bay. “He is a cool customer but as a senior who has already played the Olympics, he needs to give confidence to the others who do get rattled and we saw that against Spain.”

Romeo James, the 1984 Los Angeles goalkeeper, assistant to Harendra at Lucknow, believes the juniors play the same formation as the senior team. “Probably, that's how they keep continuity,” he explains. “We lost to them in Valencia. But we are prepared and it’s a matter of not being emotional about the match. It’s a match, a final. Yes, the pressure will be there but that’s why these boys are representing the nation.”

Belgium’s rise has been nothing less than phenomenal. In fact, it’s not a rise anymore. It’s a power house of talent and after restructuring the entire hockey establishment in 2006, Belgium has been enjoying the rewards. Australia’s Adam Commens coached the Belgians to success and a European bronze giving them qualification to the Beijing Olympics. Then Colin Batch took on the reins before Marc Lammers – an Olympic gold winner in 2008 with the Dutch women came in. At Rio, it was New Zealand’s Shane McLeod who coached them to the silver. Belgium’s mantra has always been to focus on youth and with the setting up of two national training centres, they got the push hockey needed in that country. Tom Boom was a part of the first youth teams that came out.

Belgium usually makes the junior team train with the seniors three times a week and then they go back to their respective clubs. Its six days of training at a high level and it makes the juniors want to be in their seniors shoes.

It’s also time Mandeep stamps his presence and class in a big game. For someone who already has 61 caps (senior), he needs to dominate. The star of the Hockey India League back in 2013 needs to create movement and not hang onto the ball much. With Harmanpreet, he is the top scorer with three goals. But look within the facts and you see a big advantage that India has – eight players have scored the 15 goals for India here at the World Cup. For the team, its 15 years since India last stood on the podium. Reaching the pinnacle might be painful and nerve wracking. But for the team and a nation, it would be hugely satisfying to hold a World Cup once again.

Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 14:14:46 IST