Hockey World Cup- India Gears Up For Glory
Sports Illustrated India|December 2018

Hosts India will have to play out of their skins to win their second Hockey Men’s World Cup title.

Errol D’Cruz

Lifting the Hockey men’s world cup has never been easy. A team needs to exhibit a keen sense of balance to hold aloft the magnificent trophy, adorned by gold, silver and ivory.

Clinching the trophy symbolises global supremacy in the sport. The honour goes to the team that combines skill, technical ability, fitness and strategy, along with the ability to cope with indifferent form and injuries perfectly. The 14th Odisha Men’s World Cup—to be held at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium—features 16 teams, an increase by four from its 2014 edition. The last time the tournament adopted a 16- team format was in 2002 in Malaysia, but this edition is the first time the field is spread out over four pools.

India’s only title came in 1975. They host the event for the third time and are aware—more than anyone else—that emulating the Ajit Pal Singh-led team’s feat would require an effort of epic proportions as circumstances have changed vastly.

The field of play is no longer natural grass on which India scripted one their most memorable moments. The advent of artificial surfaces has inspired a level-playing field, leading to a plethora of changes in rules, equipment, skills and most significantly—altering the power equation. So much so that Pool C has an intriguing mix of teams, where India would jostle for the top spot with Belgium, Canada and South Africa. Belgium—the highest ranked team at No. 3—will be the team to beat for the fifth-ranked hosts.

Pool toppers qualify directly for the quarterfinals, those finishing second and third face in cross-over clashes with corresponding teams of another pool. For India, any notion of needing to merely turn up to pick up three points each against Canada (ranked 11th) and South Africa (15th) would be like skating on thin ice.

“There are no easy games at the World Cup,” asserts India captain and midfield maestro Manpreet Singh. “Every team comes here to win, and we have to take it match by match.”

He is correct in his assessment. History books tell you that Canada shocked holders India 3–1 in the 1978 World Cup (Buenos Aires). More recently, the Red Caribou upstaged the Asian giants 3–2 at the Hockey World League semifinal in London last year—a result that shook Indian administrators and caused the ouster of their coach Roelant Oltmans.

India open their campaign against South Africa, who proved a hard nut to crack at the 2010 World Cup in New Delhi where they forced a 3–3 draw with the hosts. The African champions condemned India to the last spot at the 2012 London Olympics. Despite a paucity of funds and relative geographical isolation from hockey’s mainstream, they have a steely resolve and would challenge the best teams. India would benefit from the vociferous support of their fans in Bhubaneswar. Belgium, who were beaten 2–4 in the 2014 Champions Trophy at the same venue might testify to its might. But under the guidance of Grant McLeod, the Europeans are unlikely to be rattled by crowd pressure now.

IN RECENT YEARS, many Belgians have played in the Hockey India League (HIL); ace forward Tom Boon being the most prominent among them. “Fans can expect a fast, high-scoring team with a solid defence,” the New Zealand-born McLeod has reportedly said when asked about his team’s style of play. The Red Lions have a propensity to innovate. Their meteoric rise began a decade ago, helping them claim a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics where they lost to Argentina 2–4 in the final.

Victory over Belgium could fetch the hosts top spot and a direct quarterfinals entry. Finishing second or third in the pool would force India to overcome crossovers of Group D—the ‘Group of Death’—comprising The Netherlands, Germany, Pakistan and Malaysia, which isn’t a comfortable prospect by any means.

Home advantage has a flip side though, as it adds to the pressure of expectations. Many teams, who generally play before a handful of fans, thrive on the challenge of playing amidst deafening decibels, in front of a partisan home crowd.

India also carry the burden of history. After steady progress in the first three editions (bronze at Barcelona 1971, silver at Amsterdam 1973 and gold at Kuala Lumpur 1975), India have failed to qualify for the semifinals in 43 years.

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