Opportunity for India to end four-decade medal drought

There have been some setbacks like at the Asian Champions Trophy last year when they had to settle for bronze, and the Asia Cup 2022 at Jakarta, where too the team had to be satisfied with a bronze medal…reports B Srikanth

The 15th edition of FIH Men’s World Cup to be held in India in January 2023 will be one of the biggest hockey events of the year along with the Asian Games in China.

As the clock ticks down for the mega event, which will play out from January 13-29 at Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, Indian fans are looking forward to it in much anticipation.

Their appetite whetted by the men’s team winning the bronze in Tokyo in 2021, ending a four-decade-long wait for an Olympic medal, hockey aficionados are hoping the Indian team will end another embarrassing drought — at 47 years, a lengthier wait for a medal than that at the Olympics — at the men’s World Cup.

It was in 1975 that India won their first and till now only hockey World Cup title at Kuala Lumpur, beating Pakistan 2-1 in the final. Since that fateful third edition of the quadrennial mega event, India have failed to even reach the semifinals.

The upcoming World Cup is crucial for India as an organiser, as it is the first mega event it is hosting after the pandemic and successful conduct of it will boost the country’s morale for other major events later in the year.

With the World Cup medal drought nearing half-a-century, hockey fans feel India have the best chance of ending it as the team has performed brilliantly in the past few years, winning a bronze medal in Tokyo and claiming the third position in the FIH Pro League.

Under head coach Graham Reid’s tutelage, the team has improved a lot and has done exceedingly well, registering wins against the likes of The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, reigning World Champion Belgium and Rio Olympics gold medallist Argentina over the last couple of seasons, winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in August 2022.

There have been some setbacks like at the Asian Champions Trophy last year when they had to settle for bronze, and the Asia Cup 2022 at Jakarta, where too the team had to be satisfied with a bronze medal.

India will be hosting the event for the fourth time after 1982 (Bombay), 2010 (New Delhi) and 2018 (Bhubaneswar). This will be the second successive edition that India will be hosting and the team’s recent success has emboldened expectations that the drought will end this time.

However, the fans’ expectations have also doubled the pressure on the team and Dutch drag-flick expert Bram Lomans feels the hosts will do well if they manage to handle this extra pressure.

“I think if India can cope with the enormous pressure, and if the players do not get too excited, they have a really good chance of winning. India have got good strikers, good corner-takers, and a good goalkeeper. So they have all the ingredients to go far,” the 1998 World Cup winner said recently.

“If they get too excited or emotional, things can fall apart. But if they can keep their focus, then they are one of the biggest candidates, along with Australia. The Netherlands are also always good.

“They have improved a lot in the past few tournaments, so I expect them to do well. You also have Belgium, Argentina and England, who are doing reasonably well. So, there are at least six-seven teams which might be on top. It will be extremely interesting because it is tight and that is what hockey needs,” Lomans added.

While Indian fans will be watching every move by the players with much anticipation, World No. 1 Australia, reigning World Cup and Olympic Games winner Belgium and The Netherlands, besides the hosts, are the favourites for medals.

In all, 16 teams — Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Chile, England, France, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, South Korea and Wales — will be in the fray in the mega event.

The teams have been divided into four groups of four teams each for the preliminary phase comprising a round-robin competition in the group.

Ranked 5th in FIH World Rankings, India are placed in Group D for the preliminary phase with England, Spain and Wales, with the hosts opening their campaign against Spain at the Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela on January 13.

Group A comprises Australia, Argentina, France and South Africa, while Group B has Belgium, Germany, South Korea and 2018 Asian Games winner Japan. Group C includes The Netherlands, New Zealand, Malaysia and Chile.

At the end of the preliminary stage, the four group toppers will directly advance to the quarterfinals while the teams placed second and third in each group will take part in the knock-out crossover phase at the end of which four teams will qualify for the quarterfinals.

The quarterfinals will be played on January 24 and 25, while the semifinals will be held on January 27. The final will be played on January 29.

While the local fans will be keeping a hawk’s eye on the Indian team, experts have placed their bets on reigning champions Belgium, who are also the Olympic gold medallists, and World No. 1 Australia.

Belgium have a great team, with several experienced players. They are currently placed second behind Australia in the world rankings, and have done exceedingly well in the last 5-6 years.

Three-time world champions Australia, with the likes of Blake Govers, Jeremy Hayward, Edward Ockenden and Edward Ockenden in their ranks, are the joint favourites for the experts and will be hoping to win their fourth title and join Pakistan as the most successful team in the World Cup.

The Netherlands too have a good chance of winning their fourth title, while Germany are the dark horse in the competition, though they are going through a rebuilding phase and will have to be at their consistent best to get the better of the likes of Belgium and Australia.

This is the first World Cup for men after the Covid-19 pandemic and the FIH is also looking forward to it with anticipation as it hopes to ride on its success to escape from the financial strife it had landed in due to the pandemic.

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