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India begin quest for Olympic hockey berth
Anand Philar | March 01, 2004 18:17 IST
A resurgent India begin yet another long journey in quest of an Olympic hockey gold they last won 24 years ago when they take on Belgium in their opening game of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Madrid on Tuesday.
Coach Rajinder Singh was quite succinct when he said the first target in this 12-team competition would be to finish in the top seven bracket that would ensure India a berth in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
"But then, with the sun finally coming out, the players are more at ease now," said Rajinder, on the eve of the 12-day tournament.
The last week did not turn out to be too happy for the Indians as their baggage was lost in transit and subsequently found after 48 hours. Further, the team doctor, Joginder Singh, who arrived in Madrid from Germany, where he is based, had his pouch, containing passport and money, stolen at the time of checking in at the team hotel.
But the Indians have put it all behind them.
"Today we were happy that it was bright and sunny, and if the weather stays this way, then our boys will be able to do as well as expected," said team manager K Krishnamurthy, a former national-level player from Karnataka.
Looking ahead at the tournament, Rajinder said: "Every match will be tough and we need to play consistently. Overall, I am quite confident that we will qualify for Athens, though, at this moment, we would prefer to take one match at a time."
The Madrid competition will be India's third qualifying event, a far cry from the days when the team's presence in the Olympics as also a medal was assured.
In 1991, India had to go through the qualifying process for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when the qualifying tournament was introduced at Auckland, New Zealand. Then, under coach Balkishen Singh, the Indians just about made the grade after Malaysia beat Belgium 5-3, a result that helped India to scramble through on goal-difference.
Subsequently, in January 1996, India finished third behind Holland and Spain in the qualifying tournament at Barcelona where their campaign was marred by controversy following a goalless draw with Malaysia that knocked out Canada.
As fate would have it, both Malaysia and Canada are in the same group as India, along with Pakistan, Belgium and New Zealand.
India, who will be without key striker Dhanraj Pillay, still to recover fully from a knee injury, have no fitness problems at the moment. They are pinning their hopes on their forwards scoring more goals than they miss, a weakness that has often contributed to defeats.
Given the high stakes, the Indians will have to be at their best right through as none of the teams will be pushovers, least of all Pakistan.
Pakistan, trained by Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, have opted for a rather defensive posture with accent on ball-holding and counter-attacks, a style of play that has put their customary aggression on leash.
Nevertheless, the discipline in their play has only strengthened them, as was evident in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January, when they finished runners-up to Australia in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament.
Thus, the Indians will be wary of Pakistan, and especially their penalty-corner specialist Sohail Abbas, whose powerful drag-flicks are among the best in world hockey today.
Rajinder mentioned this aspect when he spoke about India's game against Pakistan, scheduled for March 6.
Of the other teams in the group, Malaysia, Canada and New Zealand could prove to be difficult opponents. The Malaysians, coached by German expert Paul Lissek, have been showing signs
of progress and, historically, they have always proved a handful, and it would be no different this time around.
The Canadians need no reminder of the Barcelona qualifying tournament. Since then, they have played the Indians with a vengeance. As such, the Indians need to exercise great caution when they take on Canada in their concluding league fixture on March 9, less than 24 hours after playing New Zealand.
The Kiwis, after their 1976 gold medal-winning performance at the Montreal Olympics where astro-turf made its international debut, have struggled to be among the top six.
Yet, on their day, they have shown a special ability to trouble the best of teams.
However, India and Pakistan are expected to finish at the top in Group B and that would guarantee both the teams a ticket to Athens.
The other group has 1988 Olympic gold medallists Britain, reigning Olympic champions Holland, hosts Spain, Poland, South Africa and Japan.
The Dutch, under former Australian great Terry Walsh, appear all primed up for the event and are favourites to top the group, leaving Spain and Britain to fight it out for the second spot.
Tuesday's fixtures (IST):
South Africa vs Holland (4.30 pm), New Zealand vs Malaysia (5 pm - pitch 2), Poland vs Great Britain (6.30 pm), Pakistan vs Canada (7 pm), Spain vs Japan (8.30 pm) and India vs Belgium (10.30 pm).