Hockey World Cup 2018: India's jitters under pressure, necessity of sturdy domestic structure and other talking points

The Hockey World Cup came to a thrilling end in Bhubaneswar with Belgium clinching their first ever World Cup title after beating The Netherlands in the final. The match saw no goals from both the teams in regular time and the winner had to be decided in shootout. Belgium players stepped up and ensured they go home with the trophy, beating the Dutch 3-2 in the shootout.

Belgium players celebrate the World Cup victory in Bhubaneswar. Image Courtesy: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

Belgium players celebrate the World Cup victory in Bhubaneswar. Image Courtesy: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

The World Cup saw the dominance of the European teams, with three of the four semi-finalists — England, Belgium and The Netherlands coming from the same continent. Australia's unbeaten run till the semis came to an end after they failed to beat the Dutch in the shootout. India impressed once again in the initial stages, but did not progress beyond the quarter-final. There were some surprises with France, who at No 20 were the lowest ranked team in the tournament, made it to the last-eight stage.

Here are some of the takeaways from the World Cup:

India succumb to pressure, yet again

With regards to all the euphoria surrounding the Indian hockey team, mainly because the tournament was taking place in their own backyard, the side failed to deliver when it mattered the most. This has been the story of the team for quite some time. The current Indian team is a vastly improved side compared to the ones that played 10-15 years back. Their fitness levels are world-class, they are not afraid to take on the European teams or the Australians, and the team is constantly making it to the quarters and semi-final stages of tournaments.

But that's that. India are not a struggling side, but they still have some way to go if the team wants to win big tournaments. To win big tournaments, a team has to conquer their nerves in crunch situations, an aspect that seems to be missing from the Indian team. At the Commonwealth Games, India lost in the semis to New Zealand. At the Asian Games, where India dominated like no other side, they failed against Malaysia in the shootout. Now at the World Cup, where expectations were high, India came up short against Netherlands after committing some silly errors and not converting their chances.

In terms of talent and quality, India are right up there with the best of teams. On their day, they can cause an upset, but the consistency is just not there. India are too good against the low-ranked teams, often handing them a hammering, especially during early stages of a tournament. Due to this kind of dominance, expectations increase. But then, the team falters due to avoidable circumstances. Like getting a player sent off in the dying minutes of the game or conceding just before the break. Until the team fix these problems, expectations must be reined in.

Very little to separate top three teams

In the end, Belgium clinched the title, but there’s very little to that can separate the top three teams at the World Cup. It took a tense shootout to find a winner between Australia and Netherlands in the semi-final while the final was also a very tight affair where, once again, the winner was decided after the shootout.

Also, it’s fair to say that all three teams — Belgium, The Netherlands and Australia are a notch above others. Considering their rankings before the start of the World Cup, it was expected that these countries will go on to dominate in Bhubaneswar. When the tournament reached the last-four stage, Australia were considered heavy favourites for the title because they hadn’t lost a game yet. The Netherlands suffered a defeat against Germany while Belgium played out a draw against India.

In the semi-final, Australia’s fight back from 0-2 down to make it 2-2 against Netherlands was a commendable effort. The Dutch managed to keep their nerves in check and carved out a thrilling win in the shootout. England, the other semi-finalist, were far behind in terms of quality. They lost their semi-final game against Belgium 0-6 and then were humiliated by the Aussies in the bronze medal match – losing the game 1-8.

Pakistan hockey is in turmoil 

Not much was expected out of Pakistan's hockey team at this year's World Cup. They are ranked outside the top-10 and form-wise, they were inconsistent. Before they could arrive in Bhubaneswar, the off-field issues engulfed the team and there were doubts whether they would make it to the World Cup. They eventually did and as it turned out, their campaign ended on a disastrous note. Despite making it to the crossover round, it was a disastrous tournament for Pakistan because they did not win a single match. A draw against Malaysia was the only decent result they had in the World Cup. The rest was a 0-1 defeat to Germany, a 1-5 loss to Netherlands and the 0-5 suffering at the hands of eventual world champions, Belgium.

The problems with Pakistan hockey is not entirely to do with the national team. The whole system is a complete mess and it would require long-term planning and years of hard work in order to make significant improvements. As past hockey legends of a team that won the World Cup four times said,  there's need for a complete revamp of the structure so that the country could attract more talents in the sport. The team should now focus on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Domestic structure key to success 

If anything, this World Cup is a vindication of the fact that teams with a strong domestic structure, end up making an impact at the World Cup. Take the example of the Belgium. The country was way behind the other European nations like Netherlands, Germany and England. Since 2008, when Belgium first made it to the Olympics after 32 years, the national team is on the rise thanks to a strong domestic structure.  The federation made an effort to popularise the game in the country, which in turn attracted talent. Netherlands, where the club system is the strongest, were rewarded with a place in the final.

There's a lesson here for other teams, especially India because there are reports that the federation is planning to revamp the Hockey India League to fast-paced five-a-side format. Former players and coaches like Australian legend Ric Charlesworth have been vocal about how the league played a vital role in transforming hockey in India and a change in format might not do be the best of ideas. Hopefully, Hockey India is listening.

Bhubaneswar plays the perfect host

A round of applause for the Bhubaneswar crowd, who turned up in numbers at the Kalinga Stadium, even for matches not involving the India. And when India played their matches, the atmosphere was electrifying and equally intimidating for the opponents. Four years back, the crowd at the Kalinga Stadium turned hostile to Pakistan when they beat India in the semi-final of the Champions Trophy, which resulted in players losing their cool making obscene gestures at them. No such incidents this time around and Bhubaneswar was successful in hosting the biggest hockey spectacle.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2018 18:46:37 IST

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