For the Indian women’s hockey team, qualifying for Rio Olympics in 2016 was a dream. It put an end to a 36-year wait to reach the showpiece event. What followed though was nothing short of a nightmare.
India lost four out of the five matches conceding 19 goals and scoring just three in reply. The only draw came against Japan where the Rani Rampal-led side had to twice come from behind. The Olympics was a pedestal they had long craved for but it was also the stage for the team’s biggest reality check.
“I don’t want to remember it. We played really bad. We took too much pressure at Rio,” said defender Deep Grace Ekka who has 206 caps for India.
The memories for other players of the event are not too different.
“The performance in Rio was not at all good. But it told us where we stood, so it was also important in that respect,” said captain Rani.
But after the poor show in Rio, the team, under Sjoerd Marijne, are back on the Olympic stage. The achievement is still historic as it’s the first time India have made it to back-to-back Olympic Games in their history.
But this time, there is a desire to do more. In Rio where the achievement ended with Olympic qualification, Indian players hope this qualification will be the start of bigger things in Tokyo.
“Everyone is really excited. We have worked towards this for years. We have a nice blend of youth and experience and every player has some quality. Our coaches have kept some good choices in the team. We have got a balanced side in all three departments,” Rampal told reporters in an online interaction.
India have made strides since Rio and have upstaged higher-ranked teams in the past that include Great Britain, New Zealand and Spain. On the recent tour to Argentina, they also held the senior team to a 1-1 draw in the final game of the tour.
“Whenever we play a higher-ranked nation, it boosts our confidence. Even last year we played against England, we learnt a lot from those experiences and would like to take it forward,” Savita, India’s goalkeeper and vice-captain said.
Marijne’s side though will be up against it in Tokyo. Only three teams are ranked below them in the competition. In their group, only South Africa are placed below in the FIH charts. The Dutch coach thus wants to keep the expectations in check.
“The expectations in India are very high. If you are realistic, only two countries are lower ranked than us and that’s Japan and South Africa. So, I don’t know from where these expectations are based on,” Marijne told reporters at a virtual media conference.
“I think probably because we did good in the past in the last four years, but still we have to be realistic. We are focusing on reaching the quarterfinals and that’s realistic and from there anything can happen,” he added.
Having said that the coach is counting on a change in the mindset among his players to produce an improved performance in Tokyo.
“I have seen these players believe. Earlier they used to be content at losing by a narrow margin. Now they are not pleased when they lose,” the Dutch coach said.
“This change is down to our matches and some of the results. During the recent German tour, we had more chances than the Germans in certain games but we didn’t finish those chances and they did. But these possibilities make us believe that we can compete,” he added.
The confidence also stems from improved fitness levels. It’s an area where the players have put a lot of work on with physios and fitness trainers over the last five years. Captain Rani believes it’s no longer an area of concern when facing stronger European teams.
“Earlier people felt that we were no match for the European teams. If you see our team over the period of last four-five years, fitness-wise we are no less than any other team,” Rani said.
At the 2018 World Cup, India qualified for the quarter-finals drawing with England and United States before beating Italy in the crossover round. In the last eight, they only lost to Ireland in a shootout.
Being able to match teams physically has allowed the players to cope better with the mental challenges of the game. The psychological barrier of facing higher-ranked sides that haunted the team in Rio, no longer exists. There is hope that Tokyo Olympics will kickstart a new era for the Indian women’s hockey team.
“At Rio, we were happy to have qualified after 36 years but we lacked experience at that level. We were thinking a lot about the rankings,” Savita said.
“We still have respect for the opponent team’s rankings but we are aware of our strengths, we will go match by match and give our best every time. We don’t want to give any excuses for the Olympics. We are ready for everything,” she added.