A tournament that began with great promise ended in tears and heart-break. The Indian women’s hockey team, hosts of the Olympic Qualifier event in Ranchi, were expected to secure a spot at the Paris 2024 Games and make it to their third successive Olympics.

But a 1-0 defeat in the bronze medal playoff match against Japan on Friday put an end to that dream.

At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the Indians punched above their weight to finish fourth. Since then, the team continued to develop and worked to find their feet in the upper echelons of the sport.

But the team failed to secure the automatic Olympic berth at the Asian Games, finishing with a bronze medal.

In Ranchi, only the top three teams would earn qualification for Paris – India finished fourth.

And though there were flashes of brilliance from the team, the campaign ended in disappointment.

Complacency crept in

India’s focus in the group stage was arguably on the clash against New Zealand – they had never beaten the Black Sticks in regulation time.

But in their first match of the tournament against the United States – a team that was short of match practice, having played just two matches in the second half of 2023 – the Indians were dealt a shock 1-0 defeat.

They had to regroup quickly to beat New Zealand, which they did, and then Italy. But finishing second in the group meant they had to face the tough task of playing Germany in the semi-final.

Though the Indians put on a strong and brave show against the Germans, they eventually lost on penalties.

But still there was another shot at the Olympic quota – only Japan stood in their way.

India came in the more confident of the two teams, having beaten Japan in the bronze medal playoff at the Asian Games, and more recently in the final of the Asian Champions Trophy, also in Ranchi. India won that match 4-0.

On Friday however, the Japanese scored early and their defence held firm as they thwarted wave after wave of Indian attacks.

Missing finisher

India suffered were dealt a blow a week before the tournament as veteran striker Vandana Katariya had been ruled out due to a cheekbone injury.

Katariya, now 31, has 303 international caps to her name to go along with the 95 goals she has scored. She is a potent finisher with the knack of turning up at the right place at the right time in front of goal.

And, importantly, she has the skill, calmness and experience of converting chances.

As India chased Japan on Friday, Katariya’s absence was felt as the young Indian frontline were unable to breach the staunch Japanese defence.

Absent veterans

For various reasons, coach Janneke Schopman was forced to name a rather young Indian team for the high-pressure tournament. Along with Katariya, veteran defenders Deep Grace Ekka, the vice-captain of the team, and drag-flick specialist Gurjit Kaur were not available to play.

Their presence in defence might have provided a surety to the Indian backline.

Katariya, of course, was not there. And in the case of former captain Rani Rampal, who has been out of the team since Schopman dropped her last year, there is always the thought of the what-could-have-been variety.

Rampal was known to be a lynchpin in midfield, creating attacking moves and even chipping in with important goals. Not to mention her vast experience.

It was a rather disappointing and underwhelming showing from the Indians this time around. Now they have four years to assess, regroup and rebuild as their sights will shift to Los Angeles 2028.

With inputs from Dilip Unnikrishnan