And then there were eight.
The hockey line-up for Tokyo Olympic Games will be finalised over the next three days, and with four slots left each for men and women’s teams, fans of the sport in India will be hoping one of those is their teams.
Following a long and winding road, that saw the men and women in blue miss out on automatic qualification that would have come with gold medals at the Asian Games, this is the final chance to ensure their participation in the sport’s biggest event.
Last weekend, six nations secured berths at next year’s global sporting showpiece, with Australia women, China women, Spain’s women and men, Netherlands men and Canada men all winning their respective two-game play-offs over three dramatic days of action. With ten teams having already achieved Olympic qualification by winning their respective continental championships, there are now just eight - four men, four women - of the 24 Olympic tickets unassigned.
And all eyes will now be on Bhubaneswar on Friday and Saturday as the Indian men’s and women’s team face contrasting tests.
India’s women (world No 9) face USA (world No 13) in their two-match Olympic qualifier, while India’s men (world No 5) – the eight times Olympic champions – go head-to-head with Russia (world No 22).
Complacency, Indian men’s biggest threat
It’s simple: the biggest threat for the Indian men’s hockey team will be themselves. Without disrespect to Russia, complacency will be India’s biggest enemy over this weekend and as cliched as it is, that has been the buzzword from the camp in the lead-up to the tournament. Manpreet Singh-led men’s team, under the tutelage of Graham Reid, have repeatedly called for focus, promising to not underestimate their opponents ever since the tie was announced and really, it’s as much telling the hockey world as telling themselves.
On paper, the Indian men, ranked fifth in the world, are expected to have a cakewalk against the Russians. At this very venue, as recently as June, India beat Russia 10-0 in the FIH Hockey Series Final.
But coach Reid is very well aware that one bad day in office can ruin India’s Olympic dream.
The biggest improvement which India have witnessed under Reid in the last 12 months is the defensive structure. Along with Surender Kumar and Junior World Cup-winning team member Harmanpreet Singh, India’s defence has been rock solid in recent times.
The back-line will be further bolstered by the return of seasoned drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra, the latter replacing Varun Kumar after an injury. While Varun’s drag-flicking skills will be missed, Lakra adds plenty of experience to this squad.
Rupinder, whose career has been plagued by injuries, got a new lease of life after being dropped from the squad following India’s poor show at the 2018 Asian Games. The snub almost cost Rupinder his career before he regained his self confidence and forced his way back into the team.
The Indian midfield will be marshalled as ever by skipper Manpreet in the company of Hardik Singh, Nilkanata Sharma and Vivek Sagar Prasad, while the onus of scoring goals upfront will be on the shoulders of Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, SV Sunil, Ramandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Simranjeet Singh.
The Indian goal will be safe under the watch of veteran PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak: a veteran and his capable understudy who have both been given game-time in the build-up to this big weekend.
The men in blue have enjoyed success under Reid so far but this is the biggest yet. And this team has, in the past (like at the Asian Games), shown a tendency to unravel under pressure. The Asian Games should have been their ticket to the Olympics but it was not to be.
And now, failure is simply not an option.
Tricky test for Rani and Co
While the men would expect an easy outing against the Russians, the scenario is completely different for the women as they are up against world No 13 USA against whom they have a poor 4-22 win-loss record. Since 2016, USA have lost just one of their five encounters against India, with their most recent meeting (at the Women’s World Cup London 2018) finishing 1-1.
But, in a high-pressure scenario, past records hardly matters in professional sport and the current Indian women’s team, led by Rani Rampal, is a much-improved outfit from their predecessors. Besides skipper Rani, drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur, young forward Lalremsiami and goalkeeper Savita hold key to the team’s fortune.
Besides handling USA, they also have to handle the crowd pressure as it is the first time that they will get to play in front of a packed 16,000 capacity Kalinga Stadium stadium in the city. In fact, while the men’s team has played regularly at home, the women are in action in front of home fans after four years.
India chief coach Sjoerd Marijne exuded confidence saying his wards are prepared for the contest.
“We are really excited. These are the two matches we waited to play the whole year,” Marijne said. “We knew we had to play these matches but didn’t know whether we were playing home or away and against whom. We’ve prepared well. The moment is here and we are ready.”
India captain Rani echoed her coach’s sentiment. “Our first target to qualify for the Olympics was the Asian Games and unfortunately we couldn’t. As soon as Asian Games got over, our focus shifted to these matches,” Rani said.
“Through the year we have waited as well as prepared for these two matches. We are excited to play in front of a huge home crowd. I don’t think we will be under any pressure. At the blow of the whistle our focus shifts to our plan on what we need to do. It is up to us on how we get the crowd on our side,” the skipper added.
A significant advantage for Rani’s side is that the visiting USA team has not played a match in Indian conditions. USA captain Kathleen Sharkey expressed her team’s excitement to play a major event in India.
“It is exciting to be in India. None of us have been here before but we know India has a great history in hockey and people here are very passionate about the sport with a lot of fans coming to watch the matches live,” Sharkey said.
When the Indian women made their trip to Rio Olympics, it was the first time in 36 years, the first time after the inaugural edition in 1980. Now, they look to do something that has never happened before: taking part in successive Olympic Games.
Bhubaneshwar will certainly hope to don the role of 12th player for both the men’s and women’s teams, but Rani Rampal’s side will need it just a bit more.
Teams will be ranked according to the number of points each has accumulated in both matches (for each match, 3 points are awarded to the winner, 1 point to each team in the event of a draw and 0 point to the loser). If there is equality among the two teams, then the teams will be ranked according to their respective goal difference. If the equality remains, a shoot-out competition will be played to establish the winner. For example, if India win their first match 4-2 and lose the second 0-1, they will still progress because of a better goal difference. If the score in the second match is 0-2, a shootout will be played.
Friday, 1 November 2019:
Women: India v USA (Match 1 of 2) - 1800 IST
Men: India v Russia (Match 1 of 2) - 2000 IST
Saturday, 2 November 2019:
Women: India v USA (Match 2 of 2) - 1800 IST
Men: India v Russia (Match 2 of 2) - 2000 IST
The matches are live on Star Sports network and Hotstar.
(With PTI and FIH inputs)