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Can Indian hockey make it count at the Tokyo Olympics?

Can Indian hockey make it count at Tokyo Olympics this time?
Can Indian hockey make it count at Tokyo Olympics this time?

The Tokyo Olympics rings a nice bell for hockey lovers in India. 57 years ago, in what was a fiercely contested tournament at the Komazawa Hockey Field in Tokyo, India won their seventh gold medal. They defeated Pakistan, who had snatched their seventh consecutive gold medal at Rome in 1960. The tournament itself is filled with so many interesting anecdotes that it could serve as the basis for an engrossing web series or even an entire film franchise.

Likewise, the Tokyo Olympics is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Hockey India to prove their worth. The last time Indian hockey tasted any kind of glory was at Moscow 1980, where the men's team won the gold medal after defeating Spain by 4-3.

Since then, Indian hockey has only gone downhill. Unable to adjust to AstroTurf, Team India has been failing to make it to the semi-finals. From the 1980s to the early 2000s, India held the same position in hockey that South Africa continues to hold in cricket. Despite being one of the best, they choked when they needed their wits the most.

In 2008, we saw the worst, as Team India failed to even make it to the Olympics. 2012 wasn't any better either, because while India made the cut to the men's tournament, they finished a dismal last among 12 teams, failing to win a single match.

However, in Rio, things did change for the better. Though India squandered a well-fought chance to go down by 1-3 in the quarter-finals, their eighth place finish was their best Olympic outing since Athens 2004.

This time, though, Hockey India is a lot different, and it has the potential to regain the glory for which it was once known. The blue turf, the quarter system and the yellow ball has only helped Indian hockey to grow by leaps and bounds. Today, both the men's team and the women's team have a realistic chance to make it to the podium, and here are some ways in which Team India can create history this time:

Tokyo Olympics - The lucky ground for Team India

Tokyo Olympics - A Lucky ground for Team India
Tokyo Olympics - A Lucky ground for Team India

Tokyo has been a lucky place for India, both in terms of diplomacy and sports. Though India had won a silver medal in the inaugural edition of field hockey at the Asian Games in 1958, the equations would change by the Tokyo Olympics, which took place in October 1964.

That year, when the hockey teams assembled for the Tokyo Olympics, India going through turbulence air. The establishment had little faith in new PM Lal Bahadur Shastri, and the media cast doubt on whether the team would even make it beyond the league stage, let alone reach the finals. However, the men had other plans.

Also read: 1964 Olympics: India regain hockey supremacy

Demolishing every obstacle ruthlessly, they made it to the finals, where they fought tooth-and-nail against Pakistan for their seventh gold medal. Armyman Mohinder Lal converted a penalty stroke into the match-winning goal, scooping it past Pakistani goalkeeper Abdul Hamid. As such, the golden memories of that triumphant occasion will certainly be in the minds of the Indian players as they try their luck out at Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo.

Tokyo Olympics - Team India no more the 'chokers' of the nineties

Tokyo Olympics - Team India no more The Chokers of Hockey
Tokyo Olympics - Team India no more The Chokers of Hockey

Team India, especially the men's team, are no longer the 'chokers' of hockey that they were once notorious for. The team have consistently raised the bar, and were almost on the verge of breaking the knockout jinx and entering the semi-finals of the FIH World Cup 2018. However, bad luck denied them that chance yet again.

Though India finished sixth, it was still their best performance since the 1994 World Cup. Likewise, when it comes to the women's team, the quarter-final finish at the 2018 edition was one of their best since the 1978 World Cup. Even at the Asian Games that year, both teams secured podium finishes.

Despite being unable to win gold and subsequently a direct ticket to Tokyo, the two teams made it, because Japan won both the medals. It was a bittersweet moment for the Indian eves, since they lost to Japan in the finals. As such, the Tokyo Olympics is an opportune moment for both teams to prove themselves as the true masters of world hockey.

Tokyo Olympics - Both men and women can create history in 2021

Tokyo Olympics - Time for both teams to create history
Tokyo Olympics - Time for both teams to create history

Both Indian hockey teams are not only Asian powerhouses once again, but have also regained the status of "giant killers." As such, both have a golden opportunity of creating history at the Tokyo Olympics with a podium finish.

The team will have the right mix of youth and experience. This has been extremely beneficial since Team India broke their medal drought in 2018. Under the leadership of Jude Felix and Balbir Singh Saini, Team India won their first medals in Olympic hockey at any level since Moscow in 1980. Both teams entered the finals on debut and went down fighting against the respective gold medalists.

Though Indian men no longer have the benevolent guidance of Harendra Singh, the Indian eves are luckier. The women's players are still being coached by Sjoerd Marijne, the man who changed India's women's hockey for the better.

He is the man who, in 2018, led the women to their first knockout in the FIH World Cup since the 1974 World Cup. Though India lost to Ireland in the quarter-finals, they at least went down fighting, and the Indians even went on to clinch a silver medal at the Jakarta Asian Games.

The only thing the teams need to maintain is their tenacity and control their desperation in the dying minutes. This is something which has consistently denied them a medal at the Olympics.

Tokyo Olympics - How can India fare in the fixtures?

Tokyo Olympics - How can India fare in the fixtures?
Tokyo Olympics - How can India fare in the fixtures?

Ever since the rule change ahead of the Rio Olympics, field hockey is now as exciting and competitive as it was in the early sixties. It is also a lot better for India, which earlier struggled with the 70-minute structure and the AstroTurf.

India is located in Pool A in the men's event, alongside current Olympic champions Argentina, and Asian champions Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Spain. On the other hand, the Indian eves are placed in the 'Group of Death', since it comprises Olympic champions Great Britain and World Champions from Netherlands. Apart from that, this group also comprises Olympic medalists Germany and World Cup runners-up Ireland. The only weak team here is South Africa.

However, the fixtures make the deal a bit easier. The six teams only need to play each other once, and the top four will make the cut. In the men's group, the Indians just need to win against Japan and New Zealand, and make sure that they at least draw against Argentina and Spain, if not defeat them. Should they somehow manage to pummel Australia, it would be an added bonus.

The road to the quarters is tougher for women, but not impossible. On their day, they can defeat the likes of Britain and Ireland. If they manage to do it, apart from ensuring a win against the South African team, the knockout would be a mere trifle. It's up to them to ensure whether they want to go back home as just Olympians, or come back proudly as Olympic medalists.

Also read: Tokyo Olympics: Know Indian men's hockey team's opponents - New Zealand

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Edited by Sandeep Banerjee
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