Stakes high for but India up for FIH series finals
One by one, representatives of the eight participating hockey teams faced the media at the Kalinga Stadium here on Tuesday and each was asked about their expectations from the FIH Series Finals, starting Thursday. The June 6-15 tournament offers two spots in the Olympic qualifiers later this year.
While seven replied that their aim was to finish among the top two and make it to the qualifying event for Tokyo 2020, Japan skipper Manabu Yamashita said they wanted to win the tournament so that they can gain points and improve their ranking.
Japan have already qualified as Olympic hosts and had last year stunned the heavyweights of the continent to win the Asian Games gold and thus are here with a different aim. They are likely to face a tough fight from South Africa and USA in their bid to make it to the semis.
Stakes are far higher for hosts India. Failure to finish in the top two would be a big disaster that will likely push Indian hockey back a couple of years.
Graham Reid’s India is the highest ranked team in the competition, which is the penultimate stop en route Tokyo. Though India can still harbour hopes of making it to the Olympic qualification event on the basis of their ranking, it would mean loss of face for a nation that has won the Olympic gold eight times, the most in the history of the sport.
Considering the strength of the other teams in the fray—India are ranked fifth in the world while the next best is South Africa at 16—the hosts are expected to win the event quite comfortably. The other teams are Japan (ranked 18th), Poland (21), Russia (22), USA (25), Mexico (39) and Uzbekistan (43).
But playing against lower ranked teams is a potential banana skin and nobody knows that better than India who were held 1-1 by Poland at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, narrowly missing out on a semi-final berth.
That was the reason why India skipper Manpreet Singh put up a cautious front on Tuesday, saying his team was preparing hard and wants to come out victorious.
“We are very excited and as everyone knows this competition is very important for all teams here because everyone wants to qualify for the Olympics. But it is more important for us as we did not do well at the Asian Games last year. We will do our best to reach the final,” Manpreet said at a pre-event press conference.
India are going into the tournament under new coach Reid, who would be well aware of the importance of an Olympic medal for the country’s hockey fans. India had last won gold at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and since then have failed to even make it to the semi-finals. Reid must also be aware that India has had 25 coaches in the last two decades and they have even faced the ignominy of missing the Olympic Games in 2008. But that was after a loss against England, a team that was ranked higher than India’s opponents here.
India has had an indifferent build-up to the FIH Series Finals. After beating a state side and Australia A, Reid’s team had lost 0-4 and 2-5 against world No 2 Kookaburras. But that was against a top notch outfit and the competition they face here is quite modest.
Manpreet said those results will not have any bearing and that they are tackling the problem areas exposed by Australia. “The finishing was not that good (in Australia). So we are working on it so that the forwards can capitalise on the chances that come our way. The boys are quite comfortable with coach Graham Reid’s style of functioning and have adapted to his training methods. I am sure we will do well in the FIH Series Finals,” the India captain said.