Rio Olympics 2016: Does the Indian hockey team really have a chance of winning a medal?
2nd of October 2014. India became the FIRST country in the world to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning the Asian Games gold – their first in 16 years. Nearly 2 years on, the team has strengthened significantly and plenty in the country have claimed that a return to the glory days are not too far away for Team India. So, does India really have a chance of winning an Olympic medal after a gap of 36 years? In my opinion, not really.
The Indian men’s hockey team has contributed to nearly half of India’s Olympics medal total with 11 out of 26, which includes 8 golds, but we have not had the best of times in recent Olympic Games. The failure to qualify for the Beijing Olympics 8 years ago was the biggest blot in the history of Indian sport, not just hockey.
The 2008 Games was the first time ever that hockey was played at the Olympics and India was not a part of it. We made a return in 2012 in London, but finished bottom in 12th spot, earning ourselves a wooden spoon finish.
Getting better, but not quite there yet
Ever since the debacle in London, The team has been on a steady upward curve. We started off by coming 3rd in the 2013 Asia Cup in Malaysia before going on to a respectable 9th in the 2014 World Cup.
A silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games set the platform for winning the Asian Games in South Korea. The ‘small’ matter of becoming the first team to qualify for the Olympics served as the icing on the cake.
India improved on their 4th place finish in the Champions Trophy in 2014 by finishing second in the same tournament in 2016 – our highest ever finish. Littered around these successes are 3 podium finishes in 4 Sultan Azlan Shah editions between the 2 Olympics.
So fast forward to Rio and we can clearly see that the Indian hockey team is in a MUCH better shape than in London and that has resulted in people touting us as medal contenders. The most successful team in the sport of hockey goes into the biggest sporting extravaganza shouldering the expectations of over a billion people.
But, I still believe that a medal is a little far away from India’s reach. We have truly turned a new corner, but we are not yet past the slump and it will be a little longer before we can truly consider ourselves medal contenders.
Under the tutelage of Roelant Oltmans, we have definitely improved, but the decision to strip Sardar Singh off the captaincy came as a shock so close to the Olympics. Although Oltmans insists that captaincy isn’t such a big deal with his teams as he decides the strategy, a major reason for our improvement in recent years has been under the captaincy of the 30-year-old midfielder.
I have no doubt that our goalkeeper, the ever-smiling PR Sreejesh, is capable enough to lead the team, but it remains to be seen how Sardar performs without the captain’s armband and amidst the off-field controversies with Ashpal Bhogal.
Let’s take a look at the squad to analyse the team better:
Goalkeeper: PR Sreejesh (C)
Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit Singh, Surendar Kumar, VR Raghunath
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, SK Uthappa, Danish Mujtaba, Devender Walmiki, Chinglensana Singh
Forwards: SV Sunil (VC), Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh, Nikkin Thimmaiah
The goalkeeping department with the captain standing between the sticks is in safe hands. The defence has a good amalgamation of youth and experience with Harmanpreet Singh and Surender Kumar providing the energy to complement Rupinder Pal Singh’s, VR Raghunath’s, and Kothajit Singh’s calmness and experience. Lesser known Surender was instrumental in helping India win a silver at the 2016 Champions Trophy and will once again be key in Rio.
The midfield is where, I think, we lack the expertise, especially with Oltmans not picking Gurbaj Singh and indicating he’ll be using Sardar Singh further forward on a few occasions to compensate for his loss in pace. Danish and Manpreet are experienced campaigners, but young Chinglensana, SK Uthappa and Devender will be playing in their first Olympics.
It wouldn’t come as a shock to me if Sardar goes back to his holding role in order to provide control to the team and showcase his wide range of passing and close dribbling.
The forward line is extremely pacey, but is too inconsistent to help India win a medal. SV Sunil is our best forward currently as we await Akashdeep to realise his potential ala Gohan in Dragonball Z. Ramandeep and Nikkin will be there to provide cover for the aforementioned duo while the former’s dribbling ability could prove crucial to unlock strong defences.
All in all, the team has tremendous skill, but where they lack is the ability to convert that into performances and results on the pitch, something which our Dutch coach pointed out recently. The boys will have to be at their best – both mentally and physically – if they want to finish on the podium in Brazil and erase the demons which surfaced after the tragic performance in London 4 years ago.
We have been handed a difficult draw with reigning champions Netherlands, Germany, and Argentina in our group alongside Ireland and Canada. Beating the latter two should be relatively easy, but if we fail to defeat any of the other 3, we will likely face Australia in the quarter-finals – which could mean another early exit from the competition.
Defeating the ever-improving Argentina side could prove to be a challenge, but if we harbour hopes of sailing to the semis, we will need to navigate through these rough seas. Our recent 3-3 draw vs Germany in the Champions Trophy ignites hope, but we need to remember that the Europeans had sent a much weaker outfit than the one that will don the white in Rio. Netherlands are one of the best teams when it comes to performing in big tournaments and they should top Group B.
If, by some miracle, we manage to finish higher than 3rd in the group, we are in with a really big chance of qualifying for the semis as we’ll likely avoid Great Britain in the quarters as they are a shoe-in to finish 2nd in Group A.
The Indian hockey team needs to take it match by match and see where it takes us as there are plenty of permutations in place, which won’t become clear until the final group match.
While most of us are expecting a medal from the Indian men’s hockey team, I, on the other hand, am just happy to see India improve with each tournament and will be enjoying watching India strut their stuff at the Olympic Hockey Center in Deodoro. Remember Team India, even if you don’t win a medal in Rio, we are proud of you and want you to continue this upward trajectory in our quest to relive the glory days.