Two teams arrived in London for the Hockey World Cup with not-so-big dreams. India’s was to make the quarter-final of the tournament in which they have finished worse than seventh since 1978. Ireland’s was to get past the group stage.
In fact, for the Irish women, being in the World Cup itself was a dream. The last time they qualified for the World Cup was 16 years ago and according to Irish Times have to pay €550 as self-funding for being part of the national set-up.
Prior to this tournament, they had never won more than one match at the World Cup. They were the second lowest-ranked team in the tournament. So, it isn’t surprising when their coach Graham Shaw revealed in the middle of the tournament that the team hasn’t booked their stay in London after the quarter-final. And, this, too, was just in case.
For them, it was a miracle to beat USA (ranked seventh in the world) and India (a team ranked six places higher), top the pool (in which they were the lowest-ranked team) and become the first team to book the quarter-final berth. With that 1-0 triumph over India in the group stage, which assured them of a quarter-final berth, they had exceeded their own expectations.
Despite this, they started the quarter-finals on Thursday as underdogs, for they had lost their final group game to England and India, with a 3-0 win over Italy in the cross-over match, was high on confidence. So, a second straight upset, in a knockout match, wasn’t a task that many thought Ireland — ranked 16th in the world — can pull off.
But Ireland’s been defying the rankings, defying the predictions and defying their own expectations. On Thursday, the women in green — many of whom who have taken leave from their employers or schools — defeated the Indians again, this time in shootouts, to let their fairytale continue.
A cagey affair
The match, in itself, wasn’t among the most spectacular ones of recent times. There were, in total, 17 circle entries in 60 minutes. Three shots on goals. Just one penalty corner. Zero goals.
In their previous meeting, India created plenty of chances (27 circle entries and 15 shots on goal) but had failed to capitalise on those opportunities.
India’s second-half performance against USA and the 3-0 triumph over Italy suggested that their finishing woes were sorted. But on Thursday, India didn’t even create enough chances. Only twice were they on target and on 10 occasions, they breached the Irish circle.
Ireland were well-aware of their strength: their defence. They had placed the trust on their defenders and were ready to hold off the Indians till the last moment even if it meant not being able to increase the intensity of their attacks.
“We just tried to go out and impose our style on India”, said Ireland’s Elena Tice said after the match.
“At times it wasn’t pretty and we could have taken a few more chances but we kept going. We wanted to put them under pressure from the start and go forward the entire game. At times it went okay and at times we were turned over but our defence is really tough. The defence is prepared to take the hits,” she added.
And, when it came to the shootouts, Ireland’s Ayeisha McFerran — arguably the best goalkeeper of the tournament so far — won the battle against India’s Savita Punia.
Focus moves to Asian Games for India
India lacked consistency throughout the tournament. Their best hockey was played only in intermittent phases. On moments that mattered, they blew hot and cold. And, the team’s finishing was sub-par except the match against Italy.
Coach Marijne will have to address all of this before the team heads to Jakarta to take part in the all-important Asian Games.
“I think the girls will be proud of what they achieved so they will have lots of confidence [for the Asian Games]”, said Marijne after the defeat to Ireland.
“Now they don’t feel that, but they soon will. This has given them the experience of playing on the big stage, doing shoot-outs under high pressure. They will take all of that to the Asian Games.”
And, Rani Rampal and company needn’t be disheartened with the performance on Thursday. They lost by a narrow margin to a team that might be lower than them in rankings but is amidst its best run ever.