For thousands of hockey fans, the Hero Honda FIH World Cup will start and end on Sunday when India play Pakistan in a blockbuster on the opening day of the two-week tournament. The sporting public in the Capital may not know a World Cup is at their doorstep — compounded by the fact that precious few tickets are available — but when India and Pakistan lock horns, everyone will hear about it.
For fans on both side of the border, victory on Sunday will be as sweet as winning the World Cup. Though 12 teams are in the fray, and at least half are title contenders — Australia are favourites; champions Germany are eyeing a hat-trick — the India-Pakistan battle will set the tone for the tournament.
The match, the first of its kind on Indian soil since 2004, offers a chance to leave behind all the negativity — security concerns, bureaucratic bungling and ticketing problems — and focus on the sport itself.
The influence of an India-Pakistan match is such it’s easy to overlook the other teams in Group B, the Group of Death. Three of them — Australia, ranked No 2, Spain, No 3, and England, ranked sixth — are stronger, on paper, and making the semifinals will be a tough task for both India and Pakistan.
The players are only too aware of the pressure. “Fans want us to win against India and even forgive us if we lose against all others,” said Pakistan captain Zeeshan Ashraf.
For India skipper Rajpal Singh, the match could spur his team on ahead of bigger battles that await. “There is pressure but we have prepared well and are very confident.”
Meanwhile, media reports said Pakistani premier Yousuf Raza Gilani stopped sports minister Aijaz Hussain Jakhrani from visiting Delhi to attend the world cup opening ceremony.