Bitten nails, exploding hearts and many trickles of sweat. The Asian Games semi-final between India and Malaysia wasn’t supposed to go this far. But here it was, well past the regulation time, seemingly ages after the first penalty shootout got over, at 6-7 in sudden death, SV Sunil taking a penalty.

Eight seconds, he had. One chance to score, to keep his team alive. He started well, unhurried, trying to get the goalkeeper off balance, befuddle him before scooping the ball over him, into the net. But the Malaysian ‘keeper Kumar Subramaniam, even at 38, isn’t an easy man to beat. Some of Sunil’s teammates couldn’t in the regulation time. Sunil couldn’t, a few chances ago, in the shootout. Now, as he tried to scoop, Subramaniam was up to the task and pushed the ball back at him with considerable force. Sunil waved his stick awkwardly, with the seconds dying out, hoping to miraculously deflect the ball into the net.

The ball went wide. India lost: the semi-final, the gold medal and, more importantly, a direct entry into the Olympics.

A ticket to Tokyo

Before arriving at Jakarta for the Games, coach Harendra Singh had said he expected nothing less than a gold medal from his team.

“We can’t think of anything less than a gold. It is not acceptable.”

This wasn’t a taskmaster demanding the top prize from his team. This was a pragmatic man wanting his men who had recently surged to fifth in the world rankings and finished second in the Champions Trophy to defend their gold medal, so they can qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo two years from now.

Harendra had taken charge of the men’s team only in April this year. It’s just been four months for him with the team as the head coach (even though he’s known most of the members in the team for a long time). So, a gold medal in Jakarta would have given him and his team enough time – a year and 11 months (to be precise) – to prepare for the quadrennial sporting spectacle.

According to the new FIH (International Hockey Federation) structure, the countries that are not part of the Hockey Pro League, will have to play the Hockey Series or win their respective continental events.

Structure of the Olympic qualification

  • A minimum of 15 nations will qualify from the Hockey Series Open for one of three Hockey Series Finals, where they will meet the top nine nations in the FIH Hero World Rankings not playing in the Hockey Pro League.
  • Each of the Hockey Series Finals will have eight nations (five from the Hockey Series Open and three who are among the top-nine in the world rankings) playing in them and will take place at three venues across the world between May and June 2019.
  • The top two teams from each of the three Hockey Series Finals will then head to the Olympic qualification matches. These six teams will be joined by the four qualifiers from the Hockey Pro League and the two highest placed nations in the world rankings (at the end of the 2019 Continental Championships) not already qualified via the Hockey Series Finals or Pro League.
  • The 12 men’s and 12 women’s nations will compete for a total of six spots in the Olympic Games, with the winners joining hosts Japan and the five continental champions who automatically qualify for Tokyo 2020.
  • The six Olympic Qualification Events will each feature two nations playing two back-to-back matches, with nations drawn to play each other based on their rankings at the end of the 2019 Continental Championships. The nation who scores the highest aggregate score over the two matches will qualify for the Olympics.

In short, as Harendra said after Thursday’s game, the “road to Olympics is a lot bumpier now. We missed the easiest chance to qualify.”

What happened in the semi-final?

The coach, rightfully so, did not target SV Sunil for missing the final shot or ‘keeper PR Sreejesh for failing to save during sudden death.

“Shoot-out is anybody’s game. If we would have won, we should not have celebrated,” he’d said. For Malaysia was supposed to have been conquered in regulation time.

On a day when India had to bring their A-game, they fell flat, seemed to be rattled when Malaysia counterattacked and made sloppy, uncharacteristic errors.

“We had a plan to shift and pass but we tried to hold the ball and made parallel passes. That cost us the game. Also, we committed too many unforced errors. It is unpardonable,” the coach said.

This has been a year of highs and lows for the team, having returned without a medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and clinching silver at the Champions Trophy. But this loss would hurt a lot.

It would be challenge for them to pick themselves up and traverse the longer route to get to Tokyo. But before all that, they need to beat Pakistan on Saturday to return home at least with a bronze medal.