Indian team faltered when it mattered the most
Before Indian hockey made history — by losing out on an Olympic berth for the first time in 80 years — there were murmurs on how they needed divine intervention to qualify for Beijing.
When the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced the draw for the Olympic qualifiers in November 2007, only one team stood out — Great Britain. All along, it was believed that the FIH, desperate for Indian hockey to do well, had done India a favour by clubbing it in the easiest group, with Britain being the only competitor. In the euphoria after winning the Asia Cup, that was supposed to be an easy task.
As it were, India faltered at the only hurdle they faced through their charge in Chile. Not once, but twice.
It is easy to despair Indian hockey’s nadir, write obituaries to the national game and make a hue and cry on being out of Olympics. But realistically, India's wins in the qualifiers, right from their first game, have been a case of weak opposition rather than strong performance. Against a team like Russia, India earned eight penalty corners, but could convert only two. This failure to utilise the most common scoring option in modern hockey was to be a recurrent feature throughout.
A slow start and slacking towards the end has been India's bane for long. Even a low-ranked team like Austria was able take lead and then pull one back in the dying moments, regardless of the final scoreline (7-3 for India). Coach Joaquim Carvalho said he wasn't worried about letting up pace towards the end, but that was more bravado than confidence. India paid a heavy price for it.
India's first real test came against Britain, and a last-minute goal by Rob Moore shocked the favourites. But even before that, India's lack of planning was exposed during the British counter-attacks. For all his emphasis on fitness, Indians were found wanting. But worse was to come. An India-Great Britain final was always on the cards. What wasn't, was the way the Indians crumbled. Within the first ten minutes, India were trailing by two goals, both caused by defensive errors. However, to their credit, India's defence woke up after that, and kept the opposition in check, particularly goalkeeper Baljit Singh — else the margin of loss could have been much more.
It's easy for the coach to say India did not play to full potential. The moot question is, why? And who takes the blame? Unarguably, seniors will again get the flak. However, anyone who saw the final will vouch that senior players like Dilip and Ignace Tirkey saved India the blushes. But logical reasoning has been alien to Indian hockey. Divine intervention never materialised on the road to Beijing.