World Cup spot at stake, Indian women look to repeat Antwerp heroics

The Indian women's hockey team looks to replicate its brilliant performance in the 2012 Antwerp Olympics, as it vies for a spot in the 2018 World Cup.

"The younger players are excited to do well and prove a point,” said the captain, Rani Rampal.   -  Special Arrangement

Less than a week after the men finished a disappointing sixth at the Hockey World League Semifinals in London, the Indian women's hockey team would leave for Johannesburg to try and better that performance.

They need to, given that the men did not have anything at stake while the girls would be battling for a World Cup spot. A top-five finish would ensure that, even though there remains the Asia Cup later this year. “But if we qualify from here, there will be no pressure at the Asia Cup. We are fairly confident of making the cut at Johannesburg,” captain Rani Rampal told Sportstar on the eve of the team's departure.

“We were not expected to but qualified for the Olympics two years back in Antwerp. We can do it again. Also, we have a lot of youngsters in the side and we are constantly trying to motivate them by giving our own example and the Olympics experience. It's a high that cannot be explained. So the younger players are excited to do well and prove a point,” she added.

It is this belief and excitement that coach Sjoerd Marijne is counting on when India takes on host South Africa in its opening game on July 8. Chile, USA and Argentina are the other teams in its pool and both the girls and the coach believe it isn't impossible to win against two of those. In fact, India beat Chile in the HWL Round 2 earlier this year.

“I can do all kinds of predictions but our focus right now is only on SA,” Marijne said. While the skills are there, and the girls are becoming fitter, the two areas he is concerned about are tactical awareness and self belief. “See, every country has its culture and I think the things we are trying to change here are really deep rooted. There is a lot of respect for others in India, and that's a good thing, but you can also give too much respect and that's what the girls are doing."

“We speak a lot about that but I understand that it cannot be changed overnight. The best thing to do is winning against higher-ranked countries. They are going to believe more. Today, we played a match against the junior boys, and we won, so that gives a good feeling,” Marijne explained.

As for tactical awareness, he is clear the girls need to play more competitive matches. “You can train a lot and that's nice to learn skills but if you don't know how to use them in matches, you will never win big games,” he said.

Marijne also seems to have understood the Indian psyche well. “It's more fun to play matches with pressure than without, it's the way your mindset is. What we will do is embrace the matches, go out again the next day and because there is a lot at stake, it is nicer."

“I think you always have a disadvantage in not having many competitions but I try to change it into, 'what do we have'? I have the girls 24x7 and a lot of junior boys to play with and so we will do that more and more,” he declared.

Experienced Sushila Chanu has the last word. “Qualifying for World Cup is definitely up there. But the first game is also very important. In 2012 they came and beat us here in the Olympic qualifiers. Badla to lena hai wahan jake (we have to take revenge at their home),” she said, the determination in her diminutive frame evident.

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