The FIH Men’s Junior Hockey World Cup begins in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, on November 24. India are the defending champions, having won the 2016 edition in Lucknow. Prior to that, India clinched the coveted junior title back in 2001.
The Junior Hockey World Cup is seen as a stepping stone for youngsters aspiring to play at the senior level. As many as nine players from the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning squad represented India at the Tokyo Olympics, where the team clinched bronze.
Veteran coach BJ Kariappa will guide the hosts in their title defense. Kariappa has been in the junior hockey setup for a long time and has also produced results. Senior India chief coach Graham Reid is also in Bhubaneswar working with the junior boys.
“India has always been dominant in the Junior Hockey Championships. This group didn’t get much exposure on tours abroad (due to Covid), but with top coaches like Graham Reid and BJ Kariappa at the helm, I am sure they will help the boys to go for glory,” said Olympian Lazarus Barla, who played in the 1997 Junior World Cup and was coach of the Junior India team for a short period before the 2016 Junior World Cup.
The coach of the senior side helping out the junior team is not new. During the 2016 edition, the then senior India coach, Roelant Oltmans, stayed with the junior hockey team during the World Cup.
Goalkeeper Pankaj Rajak, who was part of the Indian team at the 2016 South Asian Games and has played with almost every member of the current Junior India team, said: “This core group has been practicing together for the last two years. With Olympic bronze medalist Vivek Sagar leading the side, I am sure he will motivate the team and help them to clinch the coveted trophy.”
India are in a relatively easy pool with France, Canada and Poland. The hosts might face some challenges in the knockouts, but it won’t be much of a task as top teams like Australia and England have pulled out.
Five countries have traditionally dominated the tournament. Germany are the most successful team having won the title six times, followed by India (twice). Argentina, Australia and Pakistan have each won the tournament once.
“What we had achieved is still fresh in everyone’s heart. Our young team was full of energy and enthusiasm to make it happen and I am sure this team is pretty excited too to play in India again. I am pretty confident that these young boys will keep up the legacy of winning the World Cup again,” said Vikas Dahiya, who was part of the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning team.
Arjuna awardee Vivek Sagar Prasad to lead junior hockey team
Hockey India has named Olympic bronze medalist and Arjuna awardee Vivek Sagar Prasad as captain for the Junior World Cup, with star drag-flicker Sanjay as deputy. The senior India team is in Bhubaneswar to play practice matches against the juniors as part of their preparation.
“We have chosen a group of 20 players, a team of 18, and two alternate players, who we believe give us the best chance of defending our title as Junior World Cup champions. It is a well-balanced side with a lot of flexibility and flare. The key to these guys performing on the big stage will be to trust in each other and trust in their preparation," Reid was quoted as saying in a Hockey India statement.
India will begin their campaign on November 24 against France and will take on Canada and Poland in other round-robin matches on November 25 and 27 respectively. The top two teams from each pool will qualify for the quarterfinals, which will start on December 1. All matches will be held inside a bio-bubble without spectators at the Kalinga Stadium.
Other top teams in the fray include Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. While India are considered favorites, junior hockey tournaments have always sprung surprises as most of the players are unknown to each other and are hungry for success.
The spectacular event at Kalinga Stadium promises to give birth to some new stars.