It’s been 12 days, 24 matches, 111 goals at the Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar. But it feels like the tournament’s just getting started. For, from now on, the teams that have qualified for the quarter-finals and those that have fallen to the cross-over stage won’t get second chances. The team that can maintain its winning streak till December 16 will be crowned champion of the 13th edition of the World Cup.
For the second time, the 47-year-old event began with 16 teams, instead of the usual 12. And, the non-regulars, especially China and France, have been among the talking points of the tournament so far.
Minnows make a mark
This World Cup’s finest moment until now has to be France’s fairytale win against Argentina. For, few things in sport evoke more joy than the triumph of the underdog. France, the lowest-ranked team of the tournament, were expected to maintain status quo of Pool A by losing to Olympic champions Argentina in the group’s final game and make a silent exit from the tournament. Instead, they stunned the Argentines (and the rest of the hockey world) with a 5-3 win to enter the cross-overs.
“Team showed that with your work, even if you don’t have 100,000 hockey players [in your country], you can still achieve a dream – to reach the next round after beating Olympic champions at a World Cup stadium in front of a crowd like this, I think it’s a dream come true for everyone,” said France’s coach Jeroen Delmee after the victory.
France’s opponents in the cross-over stage, China, are in the midst of their own fairytale journey. Matches, they have won none; but hearts, they have, quite a few. The World Cup first-timers held England to a 2-2 draw in their first match. Another 1-1 draw against Ireland helped them get past the pool stage (despite losing 0-11 to Australia in their last group stage game) – which is a big achievement for a team with very little international experience.
France or China, on Monday night, will make their first-ever World Cup quarter-final appearance. One fairytale, unfortunately, has to end.
World Cup group stage by numbers
Blake Govers (Australia) - 5
Marco Miltkau (Germany) - 4
Gonzalo Peillat (Argentina) - 4
Australia - 16
Netherlands - 13
India - 12
Most PC conversions
Australia - 5/15— Source: FIH
Netherlands - 4/21
India - 4/12
India’s attacking game
India coach Harendra Singh after the team won a silver medal in the Champions Trophy: “We will continue to play attacking hockey. That is our strength and any deviation from that will be a compromise.”
Harendra ahead of the Asian Games: “We have to play attacking hockey to succeed.”
Harendra ahead of the team’s first World Cup match against South Africa: “So far, this year has been one of mixed results for us, but we won’t compromise on playing attacking hockey against any team.”
Harendra ahead of India’s match against Canada: “We have to play attacking hockey. The players have adopted attacking hockey when they were teenagers. It’s in our culture. You can make minor adjustments, but not change the mindset.”
You get the drift.
The coach’s gameplan is fairly simple: press more, pressurise the opponents, score goals. But for this strategy to workout, his players need a) world-class fitness to keep up high pace throughout the game b) a water-tight defence c) patience in the penalty circle to capitalise on the chances they create.
Harendra’s boys, it seems, have checked the first two boxes. But they sometimes tend to get jumpy within the circle and miss opportunities.
They have, in the group stages of this World Cup, lived up to their coach’s hype as the team that looks to attack by making 80 circle entries – only Netherlands (98) have more. India, though, must improve their finishing skills if they’d like to be crowned champions in front of a home crowd.
Australia’s the team to beat
Australia’s supposed sign of weakness (missing an Olympic medal after 28 years) and their lowest-ever rank (three) help us fathom their supremacy in world hockey. Argentina might be the Olympic champions, Belgium might be on the rise but Australia, the defending champions, continue to be the primary favourites to win the Cup for the third consecutive time. They justified this tag with an all-conquering performance in the group stage. They have been the only one among the world’s top-5 to win all their group games. They have crushed their opponents, racking up 16 goals and conceding just one so far. They also broke a 36-year-old World Cup record that belonged to Pakistan: 15 straight wins. With a 11-0 thrashing of China, Australia extended their World Cup winning run to 16. They await the winner of France versus China in the quarter-finals. The streak is expected to extend further.