As the highest ranked teams entering the tournament, the men’s and the women’s sides of India were expected to win two gold medals for their country. But India could manage only a silver (by the women) and a bronze in hockey.
The men’s team’s (ranked fifth in the world) defeat in the semi-final to Malaysia, ranked seven rungs below them, was particularly disappointing. The team’s head coach, Harendra Singh, before leaving for Jakarta had said “anything less than a gold medal isn’t acceptable.”
Failure to clinch gold medals also mean that the Indian teams will have to go through a long drawn route to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“It is a big setback for Indian hockey. The road to Olympics is a lot bumpier now. We missed the easiest chance to qualify,” said Harendra after losing the semi-final game to Malaysia.
In agreement was Viren Rasquinha, a former Indian hockey captain, who has been to the Olympics.
Viren, who is the hockey expert for Sony Pictures Networks during Asian Games, said that the time that could have been spent in preparing for the Olympics will now be spent on numerous matches and tournaments that India will have to win to reach Tokyo.
The men’s hockey team not winning gold is a massive disappointment, considering they are No 5 in the rankings, a direct Olympics qualification was on the line and they were by far the best team in Asia. So, losing to Malaysia in the semi-final despite leading twice in the match is bad. I understand if the top two-three teams in the world were putting pressure on you like Australia, Germany or Holland. But to lead Malaysia twice in the second half and not being able to close out the match throws a big question mark on the way they played. I thought this [Indian men’s] team was better than the one that won gold in 2014 [Asian Games in Incheon]. But they just clamped up in the semi-final. Definitely not the best performance in the only match that mattered. Scoring 76 games in the first five group games is of no use.
I don’t think it was a case of complacency. They were very focussed. Mentally, I don’t think they got going in that match. Especially, after taking a 2-1 lead, they went into a shell. And the two yellow cards [one was during the last minute of the third quarter] we got in the final quarter had an impact on them as well.
But I am in favour of sticking with this team till the 2020 Olympics. Obviously, Hockey India is disappointed. Every hockey lover, every hockey fan in the country is disappointed. And, the team itself will be disappointed. Because there was a big opportunity to seal the Olympic qualification. Pakistan and South Korea, probably had their weakest teams in Asian Games history. And, the fact that India were in good form, it was disappointing.
Champions Trophy doesn’t really matter. You have to win the major tournaments. This year, the two most important events were the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. We have come without a medal in the two events. Then, overall, it’s poor performance. Yes, they did well in the Champions Trophy. Not taking anything away from it. But the Champions Trophy was not in the top-three in the list of big tournaments this year, considering there’s World Cup to come. So, they had to perform when it mattered and they didn’t do that.
For me, the women’s team have been more impressive than the men’s team both in the Commonwealth Games – although it didn’t win a medal there – and the Asian Games. In women’s hockey, Japan, China, Korea and India are at somewhat the same level. So, out of these close competitors, India beat China and Korea. And, they lost a close match to Japan. I honestly thought Japan played outstandingly in the final. They had the big-match temperament. They took little more initiatives [than India], little more risks, they pressed high. They were more physically aggressive in the match. All these qualities in a big match are very important. That was, for me, the only difference.
Otherwise, the Indian women’s team is working really hard, they are improving. I saw the team in the Rio 2016 Olympics, they were extremely poor. Physically not fit enough. But they have made massive improvement in the last two years.I think the Indian women’s team is on the right track. They just need to be more aggressive, more positive in their mindset.
It was a case of nerves for the men’s and women’s teams [in their defeats]. And, constantly the men’s and the women’s teams have not been able to play their best hockey when it has really mattered. In the last league match in Rio 2016, the men were leading 2-0 against Canada and they allowed them to make it 2-2. And, because of that, they had to play Belgium in the quarter-final [in which India lost 1-3]. They played poorly in the quarter-finals also. In the Commonwealth Games semi-final, in the match that really mattered, they played badly. In the match against Malaysia in the Asian Games, in the match that really mattered, we played badly.
I definitely think India will qualify for the Olympics in the men’s and women’s hockey. But it’s going to be a dogfight. And, you are going to face teams like Malaysia and Japan, who defend tenaciously and will get one-two chances on the counter-attack and score off Penalty Corners. India have been through an Olympic qualifiers in 2004. It’s high pressure. But I am confident that they will qualify. They are a top-5 team in the world and they deserve to be in the Olympics. But all this time that could have been spent on preparation for World Cup and Olympics will now be spent on tournament to tournament. The planning for Olympics will have to change now. A long-term strategy will be replaced by a short-term one.
As told to Praveen Sudevan