For the India men’s hockey team, the Incheon Asian Games are a gateway to the 2016 Rio Olympics. For the women, it’s the road to redemption. After failing to win a medal in the previous edition of the Asian Games (at Guangzhou), and missing out on a medal at the Glasgow (Commonwealth Games), the women are hoping to end the medal drought in South Korea.
While a medal of any hue will inject life in women’s hockey, for the men, who won bronze in 2010, nothing short of gold will do, as it will offer a direct entry to the 2016 Olympics. The task’s tough but not impossible as the Men in Blue are on a high after the silver at Glasgow.
“The team is in high spirits and Glasgow has boosted the confidence to do well at the Asian Games. For us, going to South Korea only makes sense if we win gold. Any other medal will mean nothing. Our aim is to qualify for Rio so that for the remaining one-and-half years we can focus on preparing for the Olympics,” said Sardar Singh.
The skipper is firm in his resolve. “Missing out on gold means we have to slug it out in the qualifiers and then focus on Olympic preparation.”
There was a satisfied look when asked about the build-up to the Games. “All the departments delivered during the CWG. After Glasgow, we got around 40 days to correct our mistakes, especially the penalty corner conversion rate,” he said.
Korea, the main hurdle
After hockey was introduced at the Asian Games in 1958, the men have won only twice – 1966 and 1998. Pakistan have seven while South Korea won four times in the last seven editions. On the occasions Korea hosted the Games (Seoul, 1986 and Busan, 2002) they emerged victorious. So, going by the record, Incheon will be a tough assignment for the visiting teams.
“South Korea are one of the powerhouses, and on our way to gold the hosts can prove to be a major hurdle. Having said so, the team is motivated after Glasgow and we can strike gold,” said Col Balbir Singh, a member of the victorious 1966 Asian Games team.
Going by world ranking, South Korea are a slot ahead of India (eighth) and Pakistan (ninth). Though India finished a poor ninth at the World Cup earlier this year at The Hague, they will have the psychological advantage of having blanked Korea 3-0 in the classification matches. At Guangzhou four years ago, India again had the upper hand, winning by a solitary goal. The road seems uphill for Pakistan, as due to infighting in the national Olympic association, the team could not feature in Glasgow and will be short on exposure.
“Though we were the Olympic champions, it took us three editions (of Asian Games) to beat Pakistan and gain continental supremacy. The main reason for the 1966 victory was that we had good bench strength, the players were as good as those on the field. That’s an issue with the current team. If the entire team plays its best, winning gold won’t be a problem,” said Balbir.
Gasping for breath
The India women lost to Japan 0-1 at the 2010 Asian Games, and with it went the chance of winning bronze. The same year, they missed out on a podium for the first time since hockey was introduced at the Commonwealth Games. The poor run continued in Glasgow, where they finished fifth.
“The team played well in Glasgow, but somehow we missed out on a semifinal berth. The Incheon squad has a few changes, and one of the seniors, who got injured, has been included. It’s been eight years since we won a medal at the Games, we want one at any cost,” said Ritu Rani, who was part of the team that won bronze at the 2006 Doha Games.
The women too can earn a direct entry to Rio, but history will be against them as a podium has eluded them on four occasions.
Women’s hockey was introduced at the 1982 New Delhi Games and that was the only occasion when the team won gold. Since then, the top honours have been shared by China and South Korea, the former winning gold in the last three editions.
China (ranked 5th in the world), South Korea (9th) and Japan (10th) will be the main hurdles for India, who are placed 13th.
“Last year, we beat China and Japan at the Asia Cup and Asian Champions Trophy, where we won bronze and silver respectively. So, we are capable of taking on these teams,” said Ritu.
On the team’s strengths, she said, “We are relying on (drag-flicker) Jaspreet Kaur. In Glasgow, she was on target (six goals out of 11 penalty corners), so, if we are able to earn them, she is there to convert them.”