Before India rose and rejoiced, they sank and suffered.
In the space of 120 mind-numbing minutes, spread over two matches in two evenings, they were dead, revived, dead again before resurrecting themselves one last time. Somehow, at the end of it all, they were still standing. Never had one goal in a 4-1 rout mattered so much. Never had a defeat felt so important.
Perhaps it was fate that a loose ball, which should’ve been cleared by the defence, landed at the stick of Rani Rampal in the 48th minute. At that moment, the India captain – who suffered a heartbreaking loss to the same opponent in the 2008 Olympic qualifiers – did not over-think. Just hit the target. And hit it hard. She did both. Her unstoppable shot found the roof of the USA net. It restored India’s lead on aggregate. And revived the Tokyo dream, which appeared to be in tatters seconds ago.
India began the second Olympic qualifier with a 5-1 lead over the US, a team they had never beaten in International Hockey Federation tournaments before Friday. It was a freakish scoreline, which USA’s coach Janneke Schopman and Kathleen Sharkey had said was possible for them to reverse. No one took them seriously; probably they themselves did not believe in those words. But it happened.
The USA needed just 28 minutes to wipe out the deficit. It was absurd. It was agonising. The kind of implosion you rarely see on a hockey field. “I was like, ‘what is going on here?’” coach Sjoerd Marijne said.
What was going on, in fact, was just what had gone on the day before – the US massacring Indian defence with Sharkey single-handedly orchestrating the play from the midfield. The only difference tonight was that US converted the chances they created – scoring four from the six shots on goal in the first two quarters.
This is an experienced Indian squad – just two out of the 18 players have less than 150 international appearances. But none had experienced anything like this. Marijne, a professional motivational speaker, has made several inspiring speeches at half-time breaks. This time, he needed something special, for several lines were at stake. Heck, the future of women’s hockey itself seemed doomed.
Would Hockey India still persist with Marijne as coach? If he did stay on, would he have the same players? Would Rani, with her sore muscles and broken body, continue playing if India did not qualify for the Olympics? Where would the women play next year, given they do not feature in the Pro League as well?
These questions and many more floated in the air as the teams disappeared into the dressing room at half time. Marijne chose to give the girls some space, using minimum words. “It’s 0-0,” he told the players. “It’s your moment. Go with your head up.”
Those words were enough to generate response from his players. The third quarter was cagey, both teams careful not to fall behind. Then, in the final 15 minutes Marijne made a tactical switch, employing a full-court press, which meant his players ‘had to run a lot more and thus not thinking about winning or losing.’
A couple of years ago, it would’ve been unimaginable to see such high work-rate from an Indian women’s team in the final few minutes. Marijne and physio Wayne Lombard’s obsessive push to improve the team’s fitness was now reaping rewards.
India harried USA with their high pressing, which forced an error from an American defender who was shown a yellow card in the 48th minute, leaving the visitors a player short in the closing stages of the game. Seconds later, Rani – who was absent the whole match – scored the goal that put India ahead 6-5.
Before they qualified for the 2016 Games, the women had to wait for 36 years. Now they have made it two in two.
Men’s team make it, too
After an unconvincing 4-2 win in the first match, men’s coach Graham Reid gathered his players in the centre of the pitch. “I just asked them, who can play better tomorrow?” Reid says. “Of course, they all put their hands up.”
On Saturday, they were better. But only marginally. The men’s team sealed their Olympic berth but the 10-3 aggregate win over Russia raises more questions than answers about the path the team is on. Russia, a hockey nobody, shed the tag of being the whipping boys of international hockey and showed character as they gave India a few anxious moments in the first half before the wheels came off in the second.
Russia exposed India’s defensive fragility in the first quarter and took a 1-0 lead, to reduce the overall deficit to 4-3. Ultimately, India’s experience and skill were too much for them to handle and half-a-dozen goals in the next 45 minutes ensured a safe passage to Tokyo for India.