When the Commonwealth Games (CWG) began, the Indian men’s hockey team was not expected to reach the final, given the controversies that have dogged it since February.
Barely two weeks before the hockey World Cup in Delhi (28 February-13 March), the players had gone on strike during the training camp in Pune to protest non-payment of salaries. India finished eighth in the 12-nation competition, with just one notable win over Pakistan. After the World Cup, chief coach Jose Brasa accused the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Hockey India (HI) of not treating him well because they were not following his training schedules or his recommendations for team selection. Spaniard Brasa, who took over the job 17 months ago, has been saying he does not enjoy the cooperation of selectors and assistant coaches. Media reports have repeatedly suggested that Brasa is not keen on renewing his contract with the team, which ends on 30 November.
Against this backdrop, India’s win in the Games semi-final against England in a penalty shootout on Tuesday could prove to be a turning point. India had lost 4-2 to England in the hockey World Cup. In these Games, they have made it to the final after defeating Malaysia, Scotland and Pakistan. But they lost 2-5 to world champions Australia, whom they play in the final on Thursday. Incidentally, India are yet to win a hockey medal in the Commonwealth Games since the sport was introduced in 1998.
Comeback trail: India will take on world champions Australia in the final today.PTI
That at least will change. “We have climbed quite a few steps and are showing that we can compete with six best teams in the world. Players are more confident and we are now aiming for the gold medal,” Brasa says.
India are placed ninth in the August rankings of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), behind Australia (at No. 1), England (4), New Zealand (7) and Pakistan (8). Germany (2), the Netherlands (3), Spain (5) and South Korea (6) are not part of the CWG.
“At the start of the Games, we were not thinking of winning the gold medal. We decided to just focus on each match,” captain Rajpal Singh said after the semi-final on Tuesday. “We had not even thought of reaching the final. It would have been a big mistake had we decided to go for gold from the beginning.”
Viren Rasquinha, a former national team captain and chief operations officer (COO) of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a non-governmental organization working with sportspeople, says the win against England was one of the team’s finest in the recent past. “It could be a turning point, but we still have a long way to go. One tournament is not enough to judge if we have really left everything behind and are performing well. We have to win more matches and tournaments,” he says.
V. Baskaran, a former coach of the team, told the DNAnewspaper that the team’s performance had exceeded all expectations. “This Indian team is special. He (Brasa) has done a fantastic job with the team. We had to wait for a long time for a positive result in his tenure but this win shows that he has got something right,” Baskaran was quoted as saying.
It’s going to be a tough fight, however, given that Australia have not lost a single match in the Games so far. “In the pool match against Australia, we had become defensive in the second half of the game while they got more offensive. We will not repeat this mistake now,” says Rajpal Singh.
Brasa too hints at a more attacking game. “Our players will score more goals against them,” he says.