Hockey World League Final: India's semi-final against Argentina deserved to be played in much better conditions
The semi-final of the Hockey World League Final between India, the Asian champions, and Argentina, the Olympic champions, would always be remembered as a stop-start match held against the magnificent backdrop of thousands of fans huddled under black umbrellas.
It would be easy to blame the weather for what we witnessed at The Kalinga. In the end, all teams would fly away, mentally gearing up for the next tournament or an upcoming tour. But somewhere it needs to be understood that the match and the sport suffered through the rain. In the end, the reason why this sport or any sport survives is the fans. They were treated worse than what climate issues are doing to the Polar bears in the Arctic.
Like a surreal film being shot in artificial rain, more than 5,000 fans gathered in the open stands, black umbrellas open, a few coloured canopies too dotting that black, dreary landscape. The stadium does not have a roof — the adjacent athletics stadium has one. If they can have it, why couldn’t hockey; though the sports ministry is the same.
But even worse was the quality of hockey, like rain water, it too went down into the drains. Quality suffered, hockey suffered and the fans suffered. But like so many things in life, we will move on.
Both the coaches, Argentina’s Carlos Retegui and India’s Sjoerd Marijne, just shrugged their shoulders at the weather. They said they could not do much about it and moved on. But somewhere, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) needs to protect the sport. Recently, during the Asian Championships in Dhaka, the changing rooms had completely flooded when it rained. The argument will always be that artificial turf facilitates playing in rain. On Friday, it didn’t. But it did ensure that the match happened thus removing a scheduling headache for the FIH.
But the opportunity to have a classic match was lost.
“I am not going to watch today’s match again as I do always. The circumstances are different. I would really like to play Argentina in normal circumstances and see if we are good enough to beat them. In these circumstances, they were better. Then I would really know where the team is.” Maybe these words from Marijne should make the FIH think.
Maybe, it’s time to have a wet weather tournament with a few teams better on such semi-flooded surfaces. The match did remind one of district-level football tournaments played on flooded pitches where at times the ball floated.
Yet, the match had its moments. Ball players like Akashdeep Singh and Lucas Vila struggled. But the Argentine showed what was required in the third quarter when he decided that passing would mean slowing down the pace and he wasn’t sure if the ball would actually reach the intended player. So Lucas cut in, beautifully bouncing the ball on the stick, going past Rupinder Pal Singh and then three others before losing control.
Maybe, India could have done that trick and seen if a change in style benefited on a day when the weather, not skills, dominated the match. Gonzalo Peillat showed what is required by moving to his left and using the curve of his stick slightly inwards and towards the deep to send the ball high into the corner. On the wet and flooded surface, that was a neat piece of improvisation. That remained the highlight of a match as India chased the equaliser for over three quarters.
But Peillat showed why match-winners are so coveted irrespective of where they play and under whatever circumstances. Players like Peillat come good when required to do so. In the 2014 World Cup, he was the highest scorer and the reason why Argentina finished third and set themselves on the path that took them to the Olympic gold in 2016.
Ironically, former Kalinga Lancers player Peillat was the one to break the hearts of the local fans. More than the loss of not going to the final, it’s the match-up against the Olympic champions that everybody looked forward too. The disappointment on Marijne’s face and the relief on Retegui’s face were all too visible.
Argentina are not a team on the ascendancy and a coach of the quality of Retegui knew the hazardous nature of the Indian team — he had seen enough of it in the match against Belgium. Plus fans’ support would have lifted the Indians.
When the stadium staff started to drain off the water from the pitch, it was evident this match was heavily dependent on a generous slice of luck. Other than that, it was simple logic — the more careful you were when releasing the ball, the less turnovers happened. And that was crucial in the first two quarters. You could hit powerfully, but the ball speed was killed and it reached the player, usually in a bounce or two.
India have openly said the tactical part is to rely on counters and ensure that the players in the side have speed and use surprise as a weapon. But on a pitch of this kind, the match was reduced to just short of going through the motions. But the rains spoilt what could truly have been a fascinating faceoff between one of the youngest teams in the fray, India, and Olympic champions, who still rely on a majority of players aged over 30.
India initially used the aerial route but Argentina defended well. India chased the South Americans — flanks, aerial balls, cutting through the middle using Manpreet Singh and also stretching the Argentine defence on the sides. But Retegui’s team knew how to play in the defensive zones and with the ball running slow, it was difficult to control the passes on the last touch.
Yet India came extremely close in the last seven minutes; a ball running off the blade, feet getting entangled, deflecting off the goalkeeper’s pads. Elements of luck too deserted India. It was an Argentinian night in falling rain. For India, the evening brought just black rain.
The momentum of winning a quarter-final by playing well had been stopped. Marijne was philosophical about the loss. “Both teams could not play their best game,“ he said. “You have to deal with circumstances. You can’t complain. Both teams had difficulties. It is what it is.”
Stats kind of lose relevance in a match like this. Even though India camped in the Argentina striking circle, the lack of pace on the ball made defending easier as compared to an offensive unit trying to control the pace of the ball. Waiting for the ball on a flooded pitch is easier than breaking down the defence.
Marijne also spoke about conceding only one PC to Argentina. “If you concede only one PC to Argentina, who have a good dragflicker (Peillat), then you have done really good,” he said. But with a team playing defensively in the last two quarters and only moving up on a counter attack with just one forward, PCs would have been difficult to conjure.
But the Indian coach was generous to concede that Argentina were smarter. It has been seen since the time Retegui took over that Argentina’s propensity to sometimes implode has been curbed. There is a lot of calmness on the pitch. Retegui may not look that cool standing on the touch line but the team always has direction.
“They were a little bit calmer, did smart things like little high balls. Slowly we adjusted with what we wanted. Yes, they are an experienced team and that’s why they are number one,” explained Marijne. This is exactly why India needed to play a team that have travelled all the way up to being No 1. Argentina are the only team apart from Belgium who have broken the hegemony of Australia, Netherlands and Germany.
In the end, the semi-final of the Hockey World League Final between India, the Asian champions and Argentina, the Olympic champions, would always be remembered as a stop-start match with the ball behaving like a pebble scaled over water held against the magnificent backdrop of thousands of fans huddled under black umbrellas.
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Harmanpreet (26th and 33rd minutes) scored a double for India, while Rupinder Pal Singh (10th) was the other goal-getter for the eight-time former champions, currently ranked fourth in the world, in the Pool A match at the Oi hockey stadium here.