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September 24, 2000
Indians confident of semis berthJaideep Singh
Dhanraj Pillay’s lap of honour after the victory over Spain yesterday -- arguably the slowest in Olympic history -- is a reflection of the pressure faced by the Indian hockey team to deliver the much-expected medal for a nation starved of Olympic glory ever since winning the hockey gold went out of fashion.
The relief on the face of the coach, who hugged the players after the win, and the wild celebrations in the Indian camp after only their second league match victory, said it all.
Sensing a possible entry into the semifinals -- a feat that, for the last two decades, has been beyond the scope of the once-mighty Indian team -- the players are on a bit of a high. There is expectation -- and with it, there is a huge dose of apprehension.
The celebrations are premature, though, and no one is more aware of it than coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran. He knows that there could be many a slip between the team and a semis placing, but adds that the players are now focussed, and in no mood to let the chance slip.
"Do you think these players will let this chance slip, after coming so close to making the semis?" demands the Indian coach, his thoughts already focussed beyond the last four stage.
India will play Poland next, and Bhaskaran, India's last successful hockey captain, has a healthy respect for that side. "We are not taking Poland lightly, not after they defeated Spain so comprehensively," Bhaskaran says. "In modern hockey, the difference in standards between the various teams has become very narrow, any team is capable of beating all others on their day.
"But if we play to our potential, we should have no problems making it to the semis," the coach adds.
The fast-paced game against Spain appears to have taken the wind out of the Indians, but on the plus side they have two whole days to rest before their final league outing against Poland on Tuesday.
"The two-day rest will help the boys get back to full fitness," Bhaskaran feels. "The draw has been good for us, it suits us to know just what is expected of us in the last match. We play Poland when the situation is absolutely clear."
India will take the field after the other semifinal contenders in their pool have finished their final engagements.
The pool of death is still wide open, with four of the six teams in with a chance of making the semis. Group leaders Australia, South Korea and Poland are in the hunt for the two semis berths from Pool B, along with India.
On Sunday night, South Korea plays Poland -- and one of those two teams will drop out of contention after this game.
India, thus, is in the happy position of watching its rivals finish their engagements, before going into the field against Poland with a crystal clear idea of just what the requirements are.
While complacency doesn't seem to have set in yet, confidence certainly has. Asked by a European journalist whether the win against Spain proved that Indian hockey was back to the top, Bhaskaran smiled. "Is there any doubt?" he asked.
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