Before packing their bags to London to participate in the World Cup for the seventh time, India – according to their coach Sjoerd Marijne – had set themselves a target: to qualify for the quarter-final. The fourth place finish in the tournament’s inaugural edition apart, India’s results in the World Cup aren’t very impressive.
The only other time they finished in the Top eight in the tournament was in 1978, when they managed a seventh place.
So, by outclassing Italy 3-0 in the crossover match on Tuesday, Rani Rampal and company have reached the primary destination they had wished to before the tournament.
However, the journey there wasn’t a smooth one. Their campaign was derailed and and was on the brink of an exit after the 0-1 loss to Ireland. But the women in blue made sure they did the bare minimum – secure a draw against USA – to stay alive in the competition.
Their performances against USA (in the second half) and Italy make them a strong contender for the semi-finals – a stage they haven’t reached since the inaugural edition of the World Cup in 1974.
Lalremsiami’s moment of magic
Sometimes, all it takes for a team to catch fire is a spark of individual brilliance. A moment of genius can bring about a monumental transformation.
To save India’s campaign, Rani struck a ferocious blow – with a flourishing swing of the stick – off a penalty corner. Scoring the all-important equaliser after coming off the bench where she was treated for a bad ankle twist, perhaps inspired her teammates to fight harder.
On Tuesday, it was Rani’s protege – the young Lalremsiami – who spurred her team’s success. India had missed scoring from a penalty corner (for the 13th time in the tournament) in the ninth minute. But that resulted in a long corner, which India took quickly.
Some of the Italian defenders were still shedding their penalty corner protective gear and were scrambling to get back into their positions. But the ball, by then, had found Lalremsiami, who, with a little tap, took it away from a defender and with a sweep of her stick put it in the Italian net. This was the 13th time the Italians conceded in two matches. Netherlands, in the previous match, had crushed their morale with a 12-1 win.
The Lalremsiami goal set the tone for the rest of the match. The Indians, for the second time in the tournament, took the lead and were in control. The Italians were struggling to play positive.
But even some of their well-constructed attacks were stopped by the Indian defence. Only four times did they manage to breach the Indian circle in the first three quarters of the match. By then, India had already taken a 2-0 lead.
Impenetrable Indian defence
With nothing to lose in the final quarter, they adopted – out of compulsion – an all-out attack strategy. In this phase, they penetrated the Indian circle on seven occasions. But only once – in the final few seconds – did they come close to scoring a goal when Valentina Braconi beat the Indian defenders, who were perhaps getting ready to celebrate their first win of the tournament, and hit the ball just above the Indian net.
This chance apart, Italy hardly threatened the Indian goal. In fact, the defence has been a consistent bright spot for India throughout the tournament. They were among the five teams (out of the 16) in the group stage to have conceded just three goals or less.
“We are improving. This is the first time we played consistent. The defensive structure was good. If we are more calm, we will score more goals. We don’t get to play many matches in India. So, this win is a big one for India,” said coach Marijne after the match.
The triumph against Italy, he said, is “such a good moment for women in India to show that they can achieve something.”
But as captain Rani said after the match, “the journey doesn’t end here.” Of course, getting into the quarter-final might have been the primary target. But this team has the wherewithal to go deeper – or even all the way – into the tournament. And, for that, Rani promised her team will “fight every second, for every ball.”