When India regained an Olympic medal after 41 years in Tokyo, it re-ignited hopes that a World Cup medal too was not impossible. A lot has changed since then for and with the team — in terms of personnel as well as results.
Runner-up at the 2022 Commonwealth Games sounds good until one looks at the hammering by Australia in the final. A third-place finish at the Asian Champions Trophy and the Asia Cup with largely young and inexperienced squads meant while the bench was tested, the senior players had to make do with the handful of Pro League games for match practice.
Brand new stadium
None of it would matter when India lines up against Spain for its opening World Cup game at the brand new, still-getting-finishing-touches Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium here on Friday. Like the venue, the team would be raring for a fresh start.
It won’t be an easy outing, though. Spain is one of the youngest sides in the fray but with an astute coach looking to build a team for the future. India won the meeting at the Tokyo Olympics, but since then the teams have shared honours in the last four Pro League games — all in Bhubaneswar. For a team that traditionally tends to start slow and gradually picks up momentum, India will have to fire from the beginning here.
In captain Alvaro Iglesias, Enrique Gonzalez and Argentine import Joaquin Menini, Spain has the experience and in Max Caldas, a coach who knows India well — he was with the Dutch last time around, ending India’s campaign in the quarterfinals and reaching the final.
In his limited time with Spain so far, he has shown he is not afraid to experiment with strategies.
“It is a bit difficult to tell how much influence past results have but I think it gives us confidence. For most of our players it is the first World Cup and that can be a different feeling from the Pro League,” Caldas said.
Meanwhile, the host has a mix of youth and experience in every department. The senior pros, including Manpreet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Akashdeep Singh, will be expected to guide the youngsters.
The biggest advantage, of course, would be the crowd. The stadium is sold-out and the Odisha public has always been vocal in its support.
On Friday: England vs Wales (5 PM IST), India vs Spain (7 PM IST).
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