This is it. For almost a year now, this is what the chief coach and his relatively young team have been preparing for. Terry Walsh, after joining in October last year, had set himself an immediate goal – to win the Asian Games and qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
This time last year, the Indian team faced a similar situation. The men, without a coach (Michael Nobbs had quit in July), travelled to Ipoh, Malaysia, for the Asia Cup. A World Cup berth was at stake.
With High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans at the helm, the team reached the final but couldn’t get the gold. Fortunately, Pakistan’s failure to win meant India qualified for the World Cup.
India’s 4-3 loss to Korea in the final after conceding a late goal had shown their inconsistency, for they beat this opposition 2-0 in the pool match.
The Indians will again step onto the turf under the weight of high stakes. But this time the team exudes the confidence of genuine contenders, which was unimaginable a year ago.
Over the last one year, Walsh has worked on bringing structure and stability into India’s game. And he has been fairly successful. The team has improved both physically and mentally.
The experience these men have gained in the last couple of months has been invaluable. They’ve endured the disappointment of finishing ninth at the World Cup after a couple of heartbreaking losses and have felt the joy of winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games.
While the World Cup losses would have hardened them mentally, the silver has been a big confidence boost. “Winning the silver at CWG was a big achievement for us as a team.
And we have been working really hard after Glasgow,” said Manpreet Singh, before leaving for Incheon.
“The pressure of winning the gold is obviously there. But the men are only thinking about playing their best hockey. The team is coming together after all the hard work.
The guys are fitter, sharper and hungry for success. And winning the Glasgow silver has made them believe in themselves,” said MK Kaushik, coach of the team.
Captain Sardar Singh said that the team was focusing on one match at a time. Sardar would want to erase the bad memories of the last edition.
He was one of the four, including Danish Mujtaba, Dharamvir Singh and Gurbaj Singh, who were part of the team that finished third in Guangzhou.
India led Malaysia in the semifinal before conceding the equaliser in the 67th minute. Malaysia went on to win 4-3 in extra time. India later won the qualification tournament and confirmed their berth, just four months before the Olympic Games. But qualification is much tougher now: India will have to finish in the top six out of the top 12 teams in the world.
India should easily reach the semifinals again, where they will most probably meet either Malaysia or Korea.
The Indians beat both these teams in the World Cup, which could give them an edge. But none of the three teams is consistent enough to be called the outright favourite.
Korea have slipped over the last year. But, egged on by the home support, it will be the team to beat. Malaysia, the perpetual dark horses of Asia, can always spring a surprise, as they did in the 2010 semifinal. India will be wary of them.
“Teams are always going to concede late goals, early goals and goals in the middle period. But I think we have improved as a defensive structure.
I think we are getting better at knowing how to play during important situations,” Walsh had said during the camp.
In the CWG semifinals, India held off the New Zealand offence for over 20 minutes to pull off a 3-2 win.
It was a significant win, especially after the ridicule they had faced for conceding last-minute goals in the World Cup a few weeks earlier.
For Walsh and his team, the last nine months of all the countless training sessions, sweating it out in Delhi’s heat, the tours and the tournaments have been a part of a longer process.
But they’ve also been steps towards the Asiad gold – his one short-term goal. And returning from this continental event as Asia’s second-best will not be a consolation.