A campaign that started with lot of promise ended in disappointment as the India crashed out of Rio Olympics men’s hockey competition, losing 1-3 to Belgium in the quarterfinals on Sunday. Another Olympics came to a disappointing end for Indian hockey fans.
India had gone into the Olympics banking on the unpredictability of the knock-out stage. Anything can happen in quarterfinals and it was proved in Rio on Sunday as Spain, who finished second in Pool A, lost 1-2 to Argentina while Netherlands, who had lost 1-6 to Australia in the 2014 World Cup, thrashed the World Champions 4-0 to reach the semifinals.
Thus, Roelant Oltmans’ aim was to get into the quarterfinals and take things from there, hoping to sting their opponents by performing well on that particular day — as they had done in recent events like the Champions Trophy in London and the World League final in Raipur.
In Rio, India managed to reach the quarters in unconvincing manner — played good hockey in patches – versus Germany and Argentina ؙ— but were found wanting in crucial matches — against Netherlands and Canada.
The quarterfinal match against Belgium was a great opportunity. India had gone from strength to strength in recent months while Belgium had slumped down the ranking ladder due to some indifferent performances last year — especially in the European Nations Cup. However, they came back strongly in Rio, stunning Great Britain in their opening match and World Cup and Champions Trophy winners Australia in a preliminary round clash. They topped their group with four wins out of five matches.
Thus India had a tough task on their hands when they stepped onto the blue synthetic turf at the Olympic Hockey Centre at Deodoro on Sunday.
So where did things go wrong? What mistakes did the Men in Blue make in the Rio Olympics? Here are a few points to consider:
Confident Start, Poor Finish
The Indians started well and scored early, towards the end of the first quarter. But the quarter still belonged to Belgium as the script could easily have been reversed had India skipper and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh not thwarted Sebastien Dockier a minutes before Akashdeep Singh had deflected into the goal a through pass sent in from beyond the 25-yard line on a counterattack.
Though the Indians matched the Belgians in the first quarter, there were moments when they allowed the rivals space in the midfield and opportunity to enter the striking circle. They ceded midfield control early and could not wrest it back in the second half.
Sardar Singh, VR Raghunath, Danish Mujtaba, Rupinderpal and Kothajit were moving up to support the forwards, but they were a bit slow falling back, especially in the second half of the match. The Indian midfield led by Sardar, Manpreet Singh, SK Uthappa and Danish Mujtaba, ceded control to the Belgians early and allowed them to dictate the pace of the game. They also allowed the rivals to move the ball around and open up gaps in the defence.
Game of two halves
A 1-0 lead at the half-time was a great start for the Indians, even though Belgium enjoyed more possession and created better chances in the first two quarters. The breather gave the Indians a chance to tighten their game and take the fight to the Belgians. However, it did not happen.
The Indians lost the plot in the second session. Their structure fell apart, they allowed the Belgian forwards Dockier, Thomas Briels and Tom Boon a free run into the D — Dockier made a fine solo run into the circle to score the equalisier, Boon got ample opportunity to beat Sreejesh from the top of the D for their third goal.
The Belgian midfield marshaled superbly by skipper John-John Dohmen was in full flow while the Indians were on the defensive for most of the time. The Belgians used the flanks more effectively and switched the ball well.
Though the Indian forward line of Nikkin Thimmaiah, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and SV Sunil made some good runs down the flanks, their attempts at going to the corner and injecting the ball into the circle were too predictable. The crosses were intercepted or at times when they managed to put a good one in, they could not make the most of the chance.
The forwards also failed to earn a single penalty corner, and thus India failed to capitalize on presence of three strong drag flickers — VR Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh — in the ranks. In the league stage, India had scored seven of their nine goals from penalty corners while Belgium had scored only one. In the league phase, India had earned 27 short corners.
Losing steam towards the end
Maybe it was due to the conditions as it was a noon match and it tends to get quite hot during these times in Brazil. The Indians had shown good energy levels in their matches thus far, only getting tired in the final quarter. But on Sunday, they seemed drained at the start of the second half itself. Oltmans did effect regular substitutions (there were more player changes in third quarter) but it did not have much effect.
So, in the end India had little to gain from another wasted campaign in the Olympics. The place in the quarterfinals was nothing to tom-tom about as in the old system, finishing fourth in the pool would have put them back on the plane home a few days earlier than they did in Rio.
The failure of the campaign proves that though India has surged up the rankings in recent times — reaching fifth before the Olympics — there is still a long way to go for them to get into medal contention in the Olympics.
So, it is time now for Hockey India and Roelant Oltmans (if he survives this result) to concentrate on the junior team — the Junior World Cup in Lucknow in December is a good opportunity, refurbish the senior team with fresh blood and play as many international tournaments as possible to build up rankings and the confidence of the players.