India face Olympic hockey champions Argentina in FIH Pro League restart
Deprived of game time and hungry to perform, the Indian men’s hockey team showed their intent when they returned to international action after a year, thrashing Germany 6-1 in their backyard on February 28.
The Graham Reid-coached outfit returned undefeated from that tour, winning two matches and drawing two against the strong Germany (6-1 and 1-1 in Krefeld) and Great Britain (1-1 and 3-2 in Antwerp).
Skipper Manpreet Singh and his boys will resume their FIH Pro League campaign this weekend against Olympic champions Argentina--the team eliminated them from the 2016 Rio Olympics—after the nine-team tournament was halted in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
When international games were halted a year ago, India’s rhythm looked in tune for Tokyo 2020. Despite not playing against a top team for more than a year, India beat the best—then world No.3 Netherlands, No.1 and world champions Belgium and No.2 and holders Australia—at least once on their Pro League debut.
A lot has changed since then. The Olympics got postponed, tournaments were cancelled, support staff members quit and several players tested positive for Covid.
When the time came to perform on the turf though, the team left all the troubles in the locker room, handling the pressure on return to international hockey. India will look to build momentum when they face Argentina in two Pro League matches at this weekend. The teams will also play four practice matches—two before and two after the Pro League contests, starting Tuesday.
“I am very excited to return to the team and look forward to the matches,” said skipper Manpreet, who had opted out of the European tour in February-March for personal reasons. “It has been a tough year for all of us. Not playing competitive hockey for over a year has been a big setback but this is something every team in the world is facing. Though I missed out on the Europe tour, it was very encouraging to see how the team performed against Germany and Great Britain. We are looking forward to yet another unbeaten tour.”
The trip to South America is India’s first international series since October 2019 as all their six Pro League matches were held in Bhubaneswar early last year.
Argentina too would seek to bounce back having resumed their Pro League campaign after a year’s break with two defeats at the weekend. The Rio champions lost 2-3 and 0-3 to Germany in Buenos Aires on Saturday and Sunday.
“To play the Olympic champions is always an honour and privilege in our sport, especially challenging to play them in their country,” said India’s Australian chief coach Reid. “Argentina play a different style of game to the teams we played in Europe and we will be using this tour as a great opportunity to continue our growth and development before Tokyo. These games will provide opportunities to hone our skills and tactics in a period where all teams have been starved of international competition. We are taking a 22-man squad, attempting to provide a good balance between giving experience to those players who need it and opportunities for players in the lead up to the Olympics.”
Experienced drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh and Varun Kumar also return to the squad following injury rehabilitation. “I was in good nick last year. Now against Argentina, it’ll be all about finding that rhythm back,” said Rupinder, who scored five goals in six Pro League games last year. “It is important to play simple hockey and not do anything too dramatic. Focus will be on basic skills, strong defence, good on-field communication and coordination with each other,” said the defender, who could not tour Europe due to a hamstring issue.
Forwards Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Simranjeet Singh have been rested. “Quite a few youngsters have been selected for this tour. This will be a great opportunity for them to show their mettle against a top quality team. Every opportunity we are getting in these challenging times is like a blessing and we need to make the most of it,” Rupinder added.