Tokyo Olympics 2020: Indian women's hockey team's qualification is a reward for their grit and all-round progress
India’s 6-5 victory on aggregate came after tense moments, where India saw off desperate US attacks.
India's 6-5 victory on aggregate came after tense moments, where India saw off desperate US attacks.
This was the first time India have edged the US in a knockout tournament. It is a small history made.
The only other Olympics the women's hockey team played before Rio, was at Moscow in 1980, which was an invitational tournament.
In India, we have a lot of reportage on men’s hockey, so let us for a moment talk about the women’s game. In the lead-up to the Olympic Qualifiers in Bhubaneswar, I had told friends that the US were the favourites. They seemed puzzled, but it turned out I was not far off the mark. One team had to lose, it could have been India.
The brilliant comeback by the US in the second game silenced the spectators. To overturn a four-goal deficit from the first game, by scoring the same number of goals, was stellar. It was a reminder of the mental capital of the US team, and their coach’s tactical acumen. As it turned out, Rani Rampal scored a second-half goal, and the US fell agonisingly short of victory.
“I’m devastated,” said Janneke Schopman, the US head coach. “I thought we played really, really well today and we just weren’t lucky. In the end phase, the yellow card was harsh and it changed the game for us, but that’s hockey. I am very proud of them, as no one gave us a shot.”
Was India’s victory destined? I would disagree, because humans create our luck. In the previous game, India had pulverised the US, a reminder of how far the team has progressed in fitness, strength and temperament.
Consider the build-up to the Olympic test event in Tokyo in August, and the three-test away series against England. India proved that even without quality elite-level games under their belt, such as in the Pro League, they could compete and win against a stronger team such as the US.
The recovery after being 0-4 down in the first half of the second game was a display of champion spirit. As the game progressed, players grew more composed in defence, and aggressive in tackles and in the attack. The nerves of the first-half had settled.
In hindsight, the first game proved decisive, a point Schopman conceded. India’s 6-5 victory on aggregate came after tense moments, where India saw off desperate US attacks. This was the first time India have edged the US in a knockout tournament. It is a small history made.
Look further back, and this victory was not a fluke. The signs had been there. At the Olympic test event in Tokyo, India defeated Japan 2-1 in the finals. Japanese coach Anthony Farry was gracious in defeat. "It’s always disappointing when you lose in the final but all credit to India. They were the better side tonight and we just couldn’t match them.
"It's disappointing to lose but when someone plays better than you, that’s simply the nature of sport sometimes."
After that victory against Japan, Indian player Monika had said, "It means both the men and women are improving. We’re just showing our game. We played very well here and our next step is to qualify for the Olympics in November." This was no empty boast.
In the qualifiers, Hockey India again got it right, and years of labour has produced back-to-back Olympic qualification for the women’s team. The only other Olympics the women played before Rio, was at Moscow in 1980, which was an invitational tournament.
Siegfried Aikman, the Dutch coach of the Japanese men’s hockey team, had once told this writer that hockey is social. True, because the best teams stand apart for their confidence, conviviality, and general positive messaging across the table.
I had extensive interviews with Navneet Kaur, Monika and Navjot Kaur a couple of days before the first game. The confidence was unmistakable, and these players were relaxed and jocular. They would tell me they had prepared the best way possible, and did not want to be too far ahead of themselves before the games.
“We have players from Punjab, Haryana, Mizoram, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand. We converse in Hindi and learn each other’s language. We are like a family. We are away from our families, winning and losing with our mates.” said Navjot Kaur. “That’s why we combine so well,” Monika interjected.
The Kalinga Stadium is beginning to build an institutional memory for hockey, having hosted the Champions Trophy, World League Finals, World Cup, Hockey Series Finals and the Olympics Qualifiers, in five years of frenetic activity, with the Pro League to follow in January. The infrastructure is now more routinely and productively used. There were no extravagant decorations, or banners, across the city. It was matter-of-fact, like in Europe. If our teams can similarly normalise their game, they would have a fair chance of doing well in upcoming tournaments.
One must also take the opportunity to laud the government of Odisha. After the game, I saw team members walk up to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, shake his hand, bow in gratitude, and get photographs with him. A beaming chief minister had clearly warmed up to a team that had paid back the state’s support in a splendid victory. Playing at Bhubaneswar the first time, the city proved lucky for the team.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He advises the government of Odisha on sports and teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University.
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