"Believe we can make it to the Olympic quarterfinals," says coach Sjoerd Marijne
The feeling of sheer ecstasy that had gripped the Indian eves and their loyal fans following the first leg of the Olympic Qualifiers was quite understandable.
The two-legged encounter against a lower-ranked USA side was hardly expected to be easy considering that the American girls were very much a force to contend with, notwithstanding the recent slump in their rankings.
Contrary to expectations, Janneke Schopman's side caved in against the Indians, losing the opening encounter by a 1-5 margin, and home fans could hardly be blamed for the premature celebrations that followed.
The elation soon gave way to a gripping sense of anxiety that prevailed within the precincts of the Kalinga Stadium and beyond as the Americans commenced a goal fest of their own in the second leg and restored parity much to the chagrin of the Indian bench, forcing captain Rani to play saviour via a memorable last-quarter strike that the USA had no answer to.
It was a classic contest - one that no spectator will forget in a hurry - and the coach of the Indian women's team admitted as much.
"The second match of the Olympic qualifiers will be one that I will remember forever. Being 0 - 4 down after two quarters, and the goal from Rani - that one, I will never forget!"
The qualifiers are now history and Janneke Schopman is now the Analytical Coach of the Indian team, who begin the Olympic year with a tour of New Zealand.
Sjoerd Marijne has seen it all - an India stint which saw the Dutchman switch camps from the women's side to the men's and back - and transform his image from being a perceived outsider to a congenial insider at the helm of a rejuvenated women's team confident of making the Olympic quarterfinals despite being pooled with mighty Netherlands.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Marijne was all praise for veteran Sunita Lakra who called it a day recently - while stressing on the importance of internal competition within a team who are losing no sleep whatsoever over a daunting schedule at Tokyo 2020.
For well over a decade now, Sunita Lakra has been the backbone of a defensive unit that has gotten consistently better, but the 28-year-old was forced to hang up her boots owing to injury and the Chief Coach believes that the Odisha girl will be tough to replace.
"Sunita was a great player who did really well in the Asian Games and World Cup. It's really sad that she has to retire because of injuries. We will definitely miss Sunita and it will not be easy to fill the gap but we are going to work on it and we can do it."
Midfielder Nikki Pradhan was not picked for the New Zealand tour - and, Marijne feels that internal competition within the team is an absolute must in order to string together the best combination in time for the Olympics.
"It's important to keep playing matches and stay in the rhythm. Besides that, there will be internal competition and the girls will have to prove themselves. Internal competition is very important for me even in the practice matches."
The Indian girls find themselves in a virtual pool of death - being drawn alongside the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland and South Africa at Tokyo 2020.
Rani and co. will open their Olympic campaign against an indomitable Netherlands team and then take on Germany and Great Britain - all of whom play the Women's Pro League.
The Indian eves, however, are not part of the Pro League - how much of a difference will that make to the team's prospects at the Olympics?
Coach Marijne deliberates on the topic - listing the pros and cons of not being a participant in the women's competition of the FIH's home and away league.
"We have practice matches against New Zealand. We don't play the Netherlands, Germany, or Argentina and that is the disadvantage of not playing the Pro League. I would have loved to play against these countries."
The advantage is that we can manage our load better than them."
"If you see the Netherlands, the girls play 40 matches before the Olympics- and that's a lot for six months and that will be a challenge for them."
The prospect of facing Alyson Annan's world champions first up, in Tokyo, is not something that Marijne feels uneasy about - the Dutchman actually sees a silver lining in being part of the same pool as the Netherlands.
"Whatever happens in the first few matches - we shall see. The tournament is not finished when you win or lose against the Netherlands."
"I always look at opportunities and so the best thing about being in the same pool as the Netherlands is that you will not have to face them in the quarterfinals."
"It will not be easy, but I believe in the team, and the team believe in themselves - that we can make the quarterfinals. - that's the first goal, and from thereon we take the next step."
As part of a 12-day tour that begins on January 25, the Indians will play practice matches against a New Zealand development team before taking on the Black Sticks Women and Great Britain, in Auckland, as part of the preparations for the Olympic Games at Tokyo.Published 22 Jan 2020, 07:54 IST