"Players are fit and focussed on the task," says Sjoerd Marijne as the Indian Women's Team begin the year with Spain tour
An overriding sense of disappointment summed up the mood in the Indian camp after the World Cup and, yet again, following the Asian Games - in spite of the fact that Rani Rampal and co. had surpassed the expectations of many, in a year that saw the Golden Girls rise like never before on the world stage.
The dismay was not on account of an unsatisfactory performance - on the contrary, Sjoerd Marijne's chargers achieved what their predecessors may never have imagined possible, by making it all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals at the beginning of August 2018.
Four weeks later, the same squad of eighteen girls created history by winning an Asian Games silver medal for India after a gap of twenty years.
Yet, the girls are just as aware as their ardent fans back home, that both times, they were perhaps, one step away from creating a milestone that could have catapulted women's hockey in India to a whole new level.
"I will always be left with a feeling that we could have achieved more"
The Indian girls were up against eventual silver-medalists Ireland in the quarterfinals of the World Cup at the Lee Valley Hockey Center where a win against Graham Shaw's side would have set up a semifinal with Spain - a team the girls had beaten twice as part of a drawn five-match series in June.
A medal at the London World Cup was a distinct possibility which could have raised the level of popularity of the game in the country by leaps and bounds - just as an Asian Games gold could have ensured direct qualification for the Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo.
As the new year begins, coach Sjoerd Marijne dwells on what could have been - but stresses, in no uncertain terms, that he is proud of his team nonetheless.
"We know that the other teams were not better - we were equal. We will always have a feeling that if only we could have won against Ireland, we would be playing Spain, and would have been so close to the medals."
"If you lose a match by a 0-3 or 0-4 margin, you are calm in the sense that you know this is truly what your position is - but not when you know how close you were to moving ahead. It was the same in the Asian Games finals."
"So, yes we did really well - but still, the feeling that we were so close to direct qualification for the Olympics and to winning gold was tough to overcome. The fact that it did not happen, again, was not because the other teams were better but because we did not create enough opportunities."
"I feel proud of what we achieved but I will always be left with a feeling that we could have achieved more. Firstly, we can be happy that we made history, but we ideally would like to make history by winning gold medals. In the World Cup, we did really well, but if you lose in the shootouts, it is always a big disappointment."
With the dawn of another year, however, comes new challenges - and the principal task, of course, is to qualify for the Olympics - so are the girls ready to put behind what transpired in 2018 and move on?
"I have seen the pain that the girls felt about losing to Ireland. and that can help us to grow this year and focus on making it to Tokyo 2020."
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, Chief Coach Marijne stressed that it is now time to learn from history while looking to the future, and was pleased that the girls who enjoyed a well-deserved break are back in camp, fully fit and raring to go.
"You cannot change history but you can change the future"
"We spoke about the disappointment and about what happened. I always tell them that you cannot change history but you can change the future. We used the previous months to get into the right mindset once again. The players also had a long time free so we asked them to return with good fitness levels, to begin some high-level training."
"You need to be motivated to do that because you need to have a lot of discipline. It is not always easy at home. I believe that one is an athlete 365 days a year and should behave as such."
"I am really happy with the way the girls returned to the camp. We have begun with a level of training where we can now take the next step. We have one big goal and that is qualifying for the Olympics through the qualification tournament and the girls are really motivated."
The Indian eves begin the new season with a Spanish sojourn and will have a chance to match their skills against the Irish girls as well.
"The best way to start the year is via a tour like the one we are about to begin. We are very happy as we will get to play against two very good teams - Ireland and Spain. The tour will give us a chance to add new things to our style of play."
"We have changed a few things and now we are going to try them out. In a Test series, it is more about the performance than the result."
Japan tour ahead of FIH Series Finals in June
The girls will also travel to Japan in March, as the Dutchman explained, to hone their skills further ahead of the Olympic qualifiers which begin in June.
"In March, we will go to Japan and that gives us the chance to use the knowledge we get from the January tour, and makes us a lot more ready for the Olympic qualifiers in June."
The FIH Series Finals (involving India) will be played in Japan from June 15 and the other teams in the fray are Chile, Fiji, Mexico, Poland, Russia, and Uruguay.
Unlike the World Cup, however, the Indians will be the highest-ranked side in the competition and will need to make it count, as only the top two teams will progress to the next round of the competition.
The winner and runner up of the Japan leg of the Finals along with the top two teams from the other legs to be played at Ireland and Valencia will then be joined by the top four teams from the Pro League as the qualifications progress.
The remaining two spots for the Olympic qualification event will be decided by world rankings and 12 teams will then battle for six spots for the Olympic Games.
"As far as the Olympic qualifiers are concerned, we are now in a totally new situation as we cannot claim, anymore, to be a lower-ranked team during the competition. In fact, it is the other way around as we are the highest-ranked team and Japan is the second-highest ranked team."
"We have to finish among the top two but it is equally important to earn as many points as possible. After that, it will be interesting to see who we play - the possibilities are many and everything depends on what happens in the Pro League."
Marijne feels that the girls never shy away from accepting responsibilities and are focused on the goal.
"The good thing about the girls is that they like to take on a lot of responsibility. After I conduct a meeting with the team, the girls sit together in groups- as strikers and midfielders. I do not need to ask them to do so - they do it themselves"
"I think, in general, women are really disciplined in this regard - this is not just in India. Elsewhere as well, women are more focussed on their job. The girls are focussed on their task and are totally in sync with my style of coaching."