As the final hooter went, the joy on the faces of the Indian players was unmistakeable.
The players on the sidelines hugged coach Janneke Schopman. Intense as ever from the sidelines when the match was unfolding, she finally let her guard down. The former Olympic and World Champion was beaming, her face a mixture of happiness as well as relief as she asked the players to go and celebrate with their teammates first.
You didn’t need words to describe how the players and staff were feeling. The delight was self-evident in the 50 second-video below, as Savita Punia and Co won the first edition of the FIH Hockey Women’s Nations Cup Spain 2022.
“Ah, it’s amazing. I can’t explain in words, lots of emotions. This win is very big for us, we have worked very hard for a long time for this,” captain and goalkeeper of the tournament Punia told FIH shortly after, still dealing with the emotions of a close win against hosts Spain, the team ranked one place above India.
Of course, winning an event – any international event, really – is an achievement worth celebrating but the importance of the Nations Cup triumph for the Indian women went beyond just beating Spain in their backyard and standing on top of the podium. It meant the Indian women have earned the right to be part of the FIH Pro League in 2023-’24.
“It just felt really good, it was a goal we had set ourselves as a team that we had to win this tournament and qualify for Pro League,” Navneet Kaur, arguably India’s best outfield player in recent months, told Scroll.in on her return from Spain.
“We worked so hard in our camp, almost 40 days and most of that time were red sessions, the hardest intensity. It wasn’t just five matches, we also had practice matches in Spain so it was a total of nine matches. By the end we were all quite tired. But we also remembered our aim and the happiest feeling was realising we achieved the target we set out to, proud of the fact that we won what we dreamed of winning.”
A brief background
So why are the Indian women not playing in the ongoing Pro League season in the first place? Punia and Co featured in the 2021-’22 season and finished third on their debut campaign, earning some impressive wins and putting some good performances along the way against Spain, eventual champions Argentina, and even defeating the Netherlands (albeit a second string side). But India were only in the league as replacement for one of the original set of teams in the league, with Australia and New Zealand pulling out of last season due to Covid-related restrictions. So once they returned for the current season, India missed out.
As for why Indian women were not part of the league originally... well, that’s a long story. And one, ironically, had a basis in the belief that the women’s team (a few years back) were not good enough to finish in the top four of this tournament and hence their efforts would be better focussed elsewhere in search of a spot at the Olympics. Indeed, both the Indian men’s and women’s team didn’t feature in the opening edition when there was still a question mark over how relevant the league was going to be in the calendar. But the men were included from the second edition onward as a spot opened up while the women were not that fortunate.
The importance of Pro League, then, was evident in the Indian men’s run to the bronze medal in Tokyo. Even players spoke about what the tournament offered, in terms of competing with the top teams in the world more regularly, and not just in context-less bilateral Test series. The women didn’t have that luxury in the lead up to Tokyo.
With another big year coming up which includes the prospects of the Asian Games and Olympic qualification, the Indian women would be forced to face another few months ahead of them with limited game time. They would be dependent on arranging bilateral tours (an upcoming visit to South Africa and then one to Australia later on are on the cards).
But the triumph in Valencia, where they won five out of five, has ensured that in the lead up to Paris 2024, the Indian women’s team will rub shoulders with the best teams in the world... and on merit as the Nations Cup introduces promotion-relegation.
“The way we performed last year (in the Pro League), we deserved to play against the best teams in the world,” midfielder Sonika told Scroll.in. “For us it was important (to win) because earlier we’d only get to play against teams like Argentina and the Netherlands at major tournaments. But now we’re getting those chances so it was important to win this.
“This was the first time we won a medal outside an Asian country, playing against a European country. That was a proud thing for us. Last year we played as a replacement for another team in the Pro League. Now when we go, uska ek alag he maza hai (it will hit different).”
Navneet Kaur, too, echoed that sentiment.
“When we played Pro League last season we experienced that we play the best teams in the world, there is a special level of confidence you gain from that,” Navneet said. “It really helped us, when we played Commonwealth Games and even World Cup to know our level. For 2024 Olympics preparation, we will have Pro League matches.”
Living up to favourites tag
At Tokyo Olympics, the Indian women’s hockey team provided plenty of joy to fans of the sport even if they finished a heartbreaking fourth. Indeed, there are few things more cruel than finishing in that position that puts you so close to the podium and yet feels so far off. But the defeat, and the closeness of it in the bronze medal playoff ,was a virtual starting point for the women, not a destination.
It put them on the map of world women’s hockey, teams started noticing them more and studied their style. It also brought with it more expectations from fans in India. Most of all, it made the players expect more from themselves, even if that meant adding more pressure.
In the World Cup this year, one could see that the team was perhaps still coming to terms with that. Savita Punia had said before the tournament that the team was very much aware of the hopes that were being placed on them now, but it got to them at the marquee event. It was also a lesson in dealing with the said pressure.
“We learned from the World Cup, the decision-making aspect. We can’t say ‘don’t take pressure’ but it is there at this level,” Navneet Kaur said. “How we deal with it, that is important. What we learned from losses that is important. Our team is slowly learning how to maintain our quality as we keep improving, because earlier our level wasn’t this high. Now expectations are there, that too is pressure and we are learning well how to deal with it and focus on our game. That’s I think why our performances were good.”
India (W) at FIH Nations Cup 2022
|Date||Stage||Opponent||Scoreline (IND vs -)|
|11 Dec 2022||Pool B||vs Chile||3 - 1|
|12 Dec 2022||Pool B||vs Japan||1 - 2|
|14 Dec 2022||Pool B||vs South Africa||2 - 0|
|16 Dec 2022||Semifinal||vs Ireland||1 - 1 (2 - 1 SO)|
|17 Dec 2022||Final||vs Spain||0 - 1|
While the long term objective of returning to Pro League was important, in the short term it was crucial for the team to win a tournament where they entered as one of the favourites. That they can win not just as underdogs, but also thrive as a team with a target on the back. To borrow a couple of phrases from Schopman’s recent Scroll.in interview, it was validation that this team is doing a lot of things right and must realise at times how good they actually are.
“We trained knowing that we have to take it one match at a time, not look far ahead,” Navneet said, of the time since the CWG 2022 bronze and Nations Cup. “We also looked at the videos of all the teams that we were playing, and what their strengths were. We knew our speed is good, our 1-to-1 hockey is good, how to use that. Our coach told us that it was important to take right decisions with the ball, it was all about mindset. Hockey wise we know what to do, but dealing with the pressure and taking decisions under pressure... that was really good from us this tournament and that’s why we won.”
Indeed so, in the short term as well as the long term, the FIH Nations Cup triumph for Savita Punia and Co is a definite shot in the arm.