Tokyo Olympics 2020: Indian men's hockey team renews bid for glory 39 years since podium finish
Before the Tokyo Olympics, India are expected to play the Pro-League, Azlan Shah and Asian Champions Trophy, which should be enough to gauge each player's character and keep injuries at bay
The last time India reached an Olympics final was at the 1980 Moscow Games, when they won their eighth gold medal at the event
India captain Manpreet Singh's confidence stems from the 5th spot in the world rankings that India has maintained for two years now
For the Tokyo Olympics, India have been slotted with Argentina, Australia, Spain, New Zealand and Japan in Pool A
It’s that time of year when hopes are high, dreams soar, and aspirations escalate. The hockey city of Bhubaneswar is currently home to the Indian men’s team, which now camps there till they fly out for the 2020 Olympic Games. Indian captain Manpreet Singh says with an uncharacteristic rush of blood: “Our main target in 2020 is to reach the finals of the Olympics and believe me it's achievable.”
The last time India reached an Olympic final was at the 1980 Moscow Games. India won that final. That was 39 years back. Since then, we haven’t even reached an Olympic semi-final. It doesn’t mean we can’t. We have been close, quite a few times. But a few aspects, other than just skills have let us down. Manpreet gives a pointer here too. "But for that (reaching the Tokyo final), we have to maintain the consistency which we have shown in the entire 2019.”
The Indian captain is no stranger to Indian hockey’s ‘yo-yo’ form of consistency. Skills have never been an issue. But he would know, playing in his 3rd consecutive Olympic Games that every team captain in Pool A (India’s pool) is striving to be in the last four, on the Olympic podium.
Between now and the Olympics, India would play the Pro-League, most probably the Azlan Shah and of course the Asian Champions Trophy, quite a bit of hockey but enough to gauge potential, understand each player's character and keep injuries at bay.
Most coaches would already have started preparing for the Games, now that the Pools are out.
At Tokyo, the Pools (Men) are:
Pool A: Australia, Argentina, India, Spain, New Zealand, Japan
Pool B: Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, South Africa
India play the World No 1 Australia, 4th ranked and Olympic Champions Argentina, 8th ranked Spain, 9th ranked New Zealand and hosts, 15th ranked Japan. Out of all these teams, only Japan wouldn’t be in the Pro League.
In Pool B, Canada and South Africa will not be playing the Pro League.
However, unlike most championships including the World Cup, at the Olympics, the playing field is levelled in an entirely different way; the matches are closer and tighter. Victories, defeats and draws are usually marked by errors in play, the result of massive pressure to get three points.
Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman believes stress management will be crucial “I think that like in the Olympic qualifiers, the teams will be under heavy pressure because of the risk not to make the quarter-finals. We could see for example in the Netherlands — Pakistan match that the Netherlands, an all-time favourite had trouble defeating Pakistan.
Same happened in the first match between India and Russia. The higher ranked teams did well in the 2nd match apart from some exceptions. Back to back matches reduced the chances for the lower-ranked teams but when it’s about one match many things can happen. In the preparation, stress management probably will be an issue, if we learn from the qualifiers.”
Former India coach Terry Walsh, who has also coached Australia to an Olympics bronze, and then the Netherlands to an Olympics silver, believes that the only strategy is ‘meticulous preparation’. “You know in the Olympics that you’re almost certainly going to need 10 points or more to be assured of being in the semi-finals; even 10 can be a little tricky if you’ve got three teams all very close in the pool phase,” feels Terry.
“The only high dividend low-risk strategy that I am aware of involves meticulous preparation. To my knowledge, there are no shortcuts. The reality is that you have to play each game in its entirety. Every three points and goal difference are the keys for each contest. Should you get distracted and start thinking about what might be following certain contests you can fall into some serious traps.”
On the face of it, India play four tricky opponents – Australia, Argentina, Spain and New Zealand. Manpreet Singh and his boys would need more than just confidence to pull their way through. In the 2019 Pro League, Spain had 16 points after 14 games and interestingly won five matches after a shoot-out.
The Kiwis had only 4 points after 14 matches losing four games in the shoot-out, ending up last. Evidence of a world order where teams are capable of scoring in the last few seconds; where grit becomes an enviable and mandatory quality.
Ric Charlesworth, arguably the most successful men’s and women’s coach and also a World Cup-winning captain for Australia believes ‘someone always surprises. “Every time you play an opponent you will learn but the Olympic experience is hard to replicate outside the Olympic Games,” says Ric.
“Pro League games will be different in their impact and nature with indeed different rules. But the majority of aspects will be the same. You need to be very careful prognosticating about what will happen. This is not something you can control. I am concerned about every team. Someone always surprises.”
India play New Zealand, Australia and Spain in their first three matches with the last two against Argentina and Japan. But does the order matter? Teams, anyway, have to win at least 3 matches, to have any realistic chances of qualifying unless the Pool is faced with a raft of draws.
Aikman explains the importance of the schedule. “It’s important, the more likely it is that you can win your first match it will comfort your players if you do so. From that moment you are on the positive side of the score to make it to the quarterfinals. It’s also why the ranking is so important and so unfair.”
But the Japanese coach, whose team India vitally play last, in case of a few bad results and a crucial 3 pointer to be picked up, believes ‘If you want to win you need to beat every team and therefore you need to be prepared to play every opponent at any time.’ Safe words from a coach, any coach.
Terry feels the schedule is crucial. “Once the pools are declared you have a fairly good idea of what the playing order of the matches — but the schedule itself becomes crucial, especially when weather conditions can play a role as they will almost certainly do in Japan. Then it becomes a detailed preparation time. Confirming the finite details of your preparation schedule with specific targets and objectives become the priority. As an example, the allocated times of your matches can be very influential.”
Ric, however, believes upsets would be the order. “It is forever happening. As the teams get closer to one another it’s even more likely. There will be plenty of upsets.”
Since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, only three teams outside of the top four or six have managed to stand on the podium – South Korea (2000), Belgium (2016), both with silver medals. Argentina broke into the top four of an Olympic Games for the first time ever – winning the Olympic gold.
The last Olympic Games is what Ric is talking about when he says there will be surprises. Germany and the Netherlands finished 3rd and 4th; Australia finished 6th.
In a way, Manpreet’s confidence stems not only from the 5th place that India has maintained for a good part of two years but from a knowledge that not much separates the top six or eight teams at the moment. And when it comes down to just one game, irrespective of an opponent, a penalty corner, a brilliant strike, a defensive manoeuvre leading to a counter, anything inside of six seconds can decide a match and a possible semi-final at the Olympic Games.
Aikman believes Japan is ambitious enough. As hosts, sure, they have the pressure to perform. At the same time, they have the freedom to play knowing they are the lowest-ranked team in the competition. Everything is a bonus. “We in Japan are very ambitious and we will play to win,” says Aikman. “Time will tell if we can, but we will try and that’s what we are preparing. We are not preparing to lose our matches.”
“That opportunity is fantastic because we have nothing to lose, we are the lowest-ranked team, and everyone expects us to lose every match. Can we change that before the Olympics? No! Do we have anything to lose? No! Then Why worry?”
A few months back, in an interview, Belgium coach Shane McLeod said he won’t be surprised if it’s a Belgium Vs India final. Terry doesn’t discount that. But says, “You’d be very brave to predict the two teams entering the final in the men’s tournament. You could never discount an India versus Belgium final, but I personally would find that difficult to see at this stage.”
But can the Pro League be a pointer to the Olympic podium? Terry says, “The Pro League finishes very close to the Olympic Games. Teams will be forced to use significant components of the Pro League as preparation for the Olympics. This for me is a flashing red light. I think it would be somewhat cavalier to believe that the same team will win both competitions. My view is that this will likely happen when one team is clearly better than the rest. At this stage, I don’t see that being the case.”
Manpreet, however, has an ally in Ric Charlesworth. The Australian predicts India and Australia in Pool A as possible semi-finalists with Netherlands and Belgium coming through from Pool B.
On Shane McLeod’s assertion of a possible India Vs Belgium Olympic final, Ric says, “Anything is possible, but it is mere speculation. Interesting that he (Shane) thinks Belgium will make it! I firmly believe India are a realistic medal chance. They were very close in Bhubaneswar with no luck.”
These are, in a way, fearless predictions. But, one also cannot ignore history. Before the 1980 Moscow Gold, India won gold in 1964, the last time, Tokyo hosted the Games. At times, Manpreet must be mumbling to himself, “History does repeat itself.”
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