A lot has changed in Indian hockey since the 2012 London Olympics, where India finished 12th and last in the competition. And the change has been for the better. However, world hockey has been stagnant at the top since Beijing 2008 when India, for the first time in history, failed to make the cut.
In the Olympics, Germany (men's section) and the Netherlands (women's section) have stayed at the top in the last two editions.
Even as the two champion sides attempt to stay in line for their third successive gold, India looks to revive its glory days in the sport. India's silver medal in the Champions Trophy, its overall positive results in the last two years and the determined attitude of the players have sparked a lot of hopes.
Clubbed with the Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, Ireland and Canada in Group B, the men’s team would be keen on starting well against Ireland before stepping on the pedal against Germany, Argentina, the Netherlands and Canada over the next seven days. Its aspirations of a semifinal berth could get a boost if India can finish at least third in the group, as the top four teams qualify for the quarterfinals in the new format. However, a fourth-place finish could possibly mean a clash with Australia from Group A in the first stage of the knock-out. Britain, Belgium, New Zealand, Spain and Brazil are the other teams in Group A. There are no guarantees that everything would go according to plan, and who knows Australia may finish second in the group. Australia has won a gold, a silver and four bronze medals from the last six Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, in the women's competition, the Netherlands is undefeated in 14 matches in the Olympic Games and the team is aiming to better Australia’s record of 18-match winning streak from 1992 to 2000. The Netherlands is clubbed with New Zealand, China, Germany, Korea and Spain.
The Indian women are expected to play as best as they can in a group that comprises Australia, Argentina, Britain, the United States and Japan. Qualifying for the Olympics has been a huge encouragement for the Indian women, who last competed in the quadrennial event in Moscow in 1980.
Incidentally, the Pakistan men would be missing the Olympics for the first time since 1980. Pakistan had boycotted the Olympics in 1980, and returned to clinch the gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, for their fourth title.
The competition format has opened fresh avenues and hopes but there will be no classification matches for teams that finish fifth and sixth in the group. So the fear of finishing fifth and sixth in the group always plays at the back of the mind. However, the Indian men's team, guided efficiently by Roelant Oltmans, is in a positive frame of mind. It has the backing of the entire nation. No matter the kind of medals India wins in other disciplines such as shooting, boxing, wrestling, tennis, weightlifting and badminton, the majority of the Indian sports fans are enchanted by hockey.
People's memory may be short, but not when it comes to recalling the glory days of Indian hockey, as the team gears up for its record 20th edition in modern Olympics.
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