The fans, media and officials have trained their guns on the Indian men’s hockey team. Their women counterparts, still in the hunt for a ticket to Beijing, are feeling the heat.
On Sunday, the Indian men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years. The load of expectations is now on the women.
They are currently preparing in Lucknow for their own qualifiers to be held in Kazan, Russia, from April 19-27. Belgium, France, USA, hosts Russia and Netherlands Antilles are the other teams in the fray.
Going by India’s world ranking and form, making it to their second ever Olympics after a gap of 27 years will not be easy.
Chief coach Maharaj Kumar Kaushik was conscious of the women being in the spotlight now. But he relished the opportunity to upstage the men’s team, which has enjoyed the major chunk of the meagre spoils that reach hockey in a cricket-mad country.
“Yes, the expectations from the girls will be more,” Kaushik told the Hindustan Times over phone from Lucknow. “Hockey is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The things being said in the media are affecting the girls. But they are a motivated lot. I am confident they will do their best in Russia.”
Kaushik said it was the coaching staff’s job to keep the morale of the 32 probables up.
“We will have to motivate them. We will have to keep this lot positive about their chances,” he said.
The final team will be picked after trials in Lucknow between March 15-17. The team will leave for Russia on April 9.
The players are being spirited about the challenge before them.
“Everyone is mourning that Indian hockey is dead without realising that the women still have a chance of qualifying for the Olympics,” said Pritam Siwach, a former India captain and a member of the current team. “Women’s hockey is a neglected sport and this is our chance to prove ourselves.”
Former internationals too see this as an opportunity for the girls.
Rajbir Kaur, the 1982 Asian Games gold medallist, said: “It will be a setback for Indian hockey if no team qualifies for Beijing. But if the women’s team qualifies, it would keep interest alive.”
Rupa Saini, who led the Indian team in its only Olympic campaign in 1980 in Moscow, when women’s hockey made its debut, said, “Everyone is talking about the men failing to qualify for the first time in 80 years. Maybe it would be a case of the women playing in the Olympics after 27 years.”