The mood set by the FIFA World Cup, a golden summer where surprises and unexpected results were the norm, has touched the FIH Women’s Hockey World Cup as well. The Indian women’s hockey team have reached the quarterfinals of the tournament in England -- the first time they have guaranteed themselves a top-eight finish since 1978. Having won their crossover match (post league phase playoff) against Italy 3-0 on July 31, they will now face Ireland, the lowest ranked team left in the tournament, and are a confident lot with momentum on their side after a slow start to the World Cup.
This is India’s first appearance at the World Cup in eight years. In 2010, the team finished ninth, and the low expectations this time around, along with some fortunate fixtures, have now put them within reach of the semi-finals, which would give them their best finish ever at the tournament. First though, they will have to conquer Ireland on August 2, a side that has played out of their skins and punched over their rankings in almost every match at the tournament so far, and beat India in the league phase.
India’s tournament has been a little erratic. A strong defensive and tactical performance in the opener against hosts England (the second highest ranked team at the tournament) gave them a 1-1 draw. But against Ireland the forward line wavered -- the team wasted nine penalty corners in the game -- and Ireland won 1-0.
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It may be poignant to look to that loss and turn it into the narrative that changed India, but that may not be very accurate. They got the draw they needed against the US in the third group match to qualify for the crossover phase, and it is only then that India’s forward line woke up to deliver the goods, in the must-win match against Italy. According to the new rules, only the group winners qualify directly for the quarterfinals, the teams ranked second and third have a crossover playoff.
In 2010, India’s Rani Rampal was awarded the ‘Young Player of the tournament’ at the World Cup. She was sixteen in 2010 and was the second highest scorer that year, despite being part of a team that finished way down the order. As the captain and stalwart of the side, her presence has been hugely beneficial to the team as a whole. In addition, her workrate has made a positive impression on her young strike partner Lalremsiami.
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The 18-year-old player from Mizoram is in line to emulate the captain for personal milestones. It is tough to be a striker in a team which doesn’t score many goals. In this situation, Lalremsiami’s unrelenting off the ball movement has helped alleviate the pressure on the Indian midfield and opened up space for their half backs to expolit. But despite that, her much awaited opening goal took a while to come. One hundred and eighty nine minutes to be exact.
And yet, she could have had her first goal at a World Cup within 52 minutes of the opening game against England. Neha Goyal’s pass found her inside the circle with a few yards of space. She controlled the ball well but the finish was lacking. Minutes later, England salvaged a draw. After such a miss, most other strikers -- especially those in their teens -- would be left haunted, but Lalremsiami has just grit her teeth and got on with it.
When her goal finally came, the live broadcast almost missed it. A cross from the right was haphazardly cleared, half cleared and then deflected into her path at the back post. With a true striker’s instinct, she pounced on the ball, waited half a step, saw the goalkeeper commit and then chipped it over her to give India the opener against Italy.
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Ireland will be no pushovers, but India know that this is the best possible fixture they could’ve hoped to get. Imagine England right now, who had to beat South Korea in the crossover to qualify for the quarterfinals of their own World Cup. They will face the Netherlands, the No. 1 ranked team which has scored 26 goals in three matches at the tournament so far. India’s have relatively easier opponents in Ireland.
However, India would have to significantly better their performance from their group stage encounter to stand a chance of beating the Irish women. In that match, despite their sense of adventure and more verve, India were severely lacklustre in front of goal. There may be no world-class drag-flicker in the Indian ranks yet, but nine penalty corners without a goal is playing to the opponent’s advantage. India coach Sjoerd Marijne is known to be an academic man with a penchant for tactical awareness and analytical insight. He will not have missed this.
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Where many may not have given India much of a chance in England, they have now created a spot for themselves to emulate a long lost generation. The last time India reached the semi-finals of the tournament was in the inaugural edition in 1974. It is a time so long back that even records are inaccessible.
It may be too early -- and as a culture we are far less humorous and infinitely more cynical -- to start parading the chant, ‘Hockey is coming home’, but it will be worthwhile to remember that seeds planted on the cusp of good rain often lead to a great harvest.
A young India, unexpectedly, in the semi-finals of a World Cup? Now, that’s something!