2018 Hockey Champions Trophy: Why India have a realistic shot at the title
Five years ago, if one were to claim that the Indian men's hockey team might have a serious chance at winning the FIH Hockey Champions Trophy, then most listeners would have responded with amusement. During 2012, India had achieved their worst ever position in field hockey at any Summer Olympics by finishing last out of 12 teams.
However, five years since their lowest ebb, not many would dare to laugh at the prospect of India becoming major contenders for one of the biggest tournaments in hockey. In 2018, the 37th and last edition of the FIH Hockey Champions Trophy will be held at Breda in Netherlands. If India make the cut for next year's tournament, they could have a realistic shot at creating history by winning the event for the first time.
Contrary to other tournaments, a different qualification process is in place for making it to the FIH Champions Trophy. Apart from the hosts, teams which win the following tournaments get direct qualification slots to the Champions Trophy. Aside from the defending champions of the Champions Trophy, winners of World Cup, Summer Olympics and Hockey World League Finals will gain entry to the event.
Other than hosts Netherlands, Argentina have also qualified directly by virtue of being the Olympic champions in 2016. Australia, on the other hand, have qualified on multiple fronts. They are not only the defending champions of the FIH Champions Trophy but also current holders of the World Cup and the Hockey World League Finals 2017.
Since Australia have already won a quota as the defending champion, the other two slots are left open. In such regard, India can make the cut on the quota of FIH Hockey World League Finals. As the top two medalists have already made the cut, India is the only podium finisher left. Besides, the 'Men in Blue' were also runners-up in the previous edition of the Champions Trophy.
Currently placed sixth in the FIH World Rankings, India look very much in the running for their maiden Champions Trophy title. It is pertinent to note that the 'Men in Blue' had finished second in the previous edition of the Champions Trophy. During the title clash in 2016, they had lost a contentious penalty shootout against Australia. As of now, the silver medal is India's best performance ever in the Champions Trophy. Their previous best was a bronze medal at the Amstelveen edition in 1982.
This is a golden opportunity to cement themselves as the Asian emperors of field hockey. It has been 24 years since an Asian team has won this trophy. Pakistan had won the tournament in 1994. If India perform up to potential, it can end the Asian drought in the 2018 edition. Besides, their record against the mighty Australians is improving day by day. The last encounter saw them eke out an impressive draw against the Kookaburras in the 2017 Hockey World League Finals.
However, winning the Champions Trophy is easier said than done. Even though India has a golden chance to make history, their Achilles' Heel is defence which still hasn't improved by much. Their notorious habit of conceding goals at dying moments hasn't evaded them as yet. If they are aspiring to win the Champions Trophy, the defenders need to be mentally ruthless and not concede goals at crucial moments. All eyes are now on the coming year as countless Indian fans hope that their national hockey team provides them with plenty of moments to cheer.