Tough but not impossible for Indian women’s hockey in Olympic qualifiers

India Women Hockey Team
India Women Hockey Team (Source: Hockey India)

The Indian women’s hockey team is very well aware of the pressure of expectation as they compete in the FIH Olympic qualifiers in Ranchi from January 13 to 19. After the highs of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, when the girls played their hearts out before ending up an agonising fourth, support for the sport has been massive. Yet, the failure to win a gold medal at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, in October 2023, meant the team has to go through the grind of the qualifying phase.
There was plenty of muckraking during the Asian Games, and later, as Janneke Schopman, the coach, faced flak from a section of Hockey India. That normalcy has been restored and the coach can focus on her job is a good sign. Ranchi is, after all, the same venue where the Indian girls triumphed in the Asian Champions Trophy, just after the Asian Games.
Yet, there is a big difference between the standard in the ACT and the Olympic qualifiers. Compared to the men’s team, the women have not been regulars at the Olympics. However, after the passionate play displayed in Tokyo, people believe in the girls. Nobody is cursing them because they failed to win gold in Hangzhou.
The job on hand in the Olympic qualifiers is pretty clear – defeat the two tough teams in the pool, the United States of America and New Zealand. On paper, it looks simple. The reality is that there will be competition from the two tough teams which have come from different continents to challenge India.

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RevSportz has featured two exclusive interviews, with Schopman and Savita Punia, the skipper. Both are upbeat and confident, hopeful India can make the cut. The sad part is that two key players are out – Vandana Katariya, a brilliant player who can score goals at will, and Deep Grace Ekka. Vandana has been an important cog in the wheel. That she landed up with a cheekbone fracture is just sad timing.
Injuries in sports are par for the course. One cannot crib about a player’s absence, so how Baljeet Kaur and Jyoti, both essential midfielders, shape up for India will be watched with interest. There is a mix of youth and seasoned pros, but the main thing is to play fearless hockey. Schopman is no newcomer to this job really. She was assistant to Sjoerd Marijne, the coach who ensured India finished fourth in Tokyo. Schopman understands the players well and will strive to bring out the best in them.
Gone are the days when the Indian team played a traditional, Asian style. Modern hockey is called total hockey – do a bit of everything, where skills alone won’t work. There has to be will and what is termed in Hindi as “dil”, playing from the heart. If such creativity can be created in the qualifiers, India should make the cut for Paris.
A bit about India against the USA in women’s hockey. These two teams have faced each other in the past, with India making the cut for Tokyo by beating the USA on aggregate. The India women’s team have now played two successive Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021.
Women’s hockey is also fast and furious. The players have high fitness scores on the yo-yo scale, they are creative and know that individual play and ball possession is a no-no. Opportunism is the key and how they last the four quarters is important. One area where India are dead sure of doing well is in defence, where Savita is rock-solid in goal.
Yet, the midfield and frontline have to show enthusiasm and opportunism in the two big matches in the pool stage. Modern hockey demands that the penalty corner conversion rate is high. If that is taken care of, Team India can have its Chak De moment again.
Ranchi will turn out in large numbers to cheer the Indian girls. That is a big factor to get the adrenaline rush. These Indian girls are fearless. Do cheer for them.

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