Indian men's hockey team starts its Asian Games campaign against minnows Hong Kong in Guangzhou on Monday, well aware that only a gold medal in the event would open the door for a direct entry to the 2012 London [ Images ] Olympics [ Images ].
India [ Images ] had missed the Olympics berth for the first time in their history two years ago, when the team, led by Dilip Tirkey, lost to Britain in the final of the qualifying tournament in Chile, leading to a total overhaul in the hockey set-up.
The eight-time Olympic champions had a nightmare of an experience in the 2006 Doha Asian Games where they failed to qualify for the semifinals for the first time. India ended up a lowly eighth in the last World Cup in March in New Delhi [ Images ].
Despite these reverses, hopes continued to swell in the nation's hockey followers who would be hoping that Rajpal Singh and his men would deliver the goods by winning the gold in this southern Chinese city.
But the pitfalls are many in the tough passage ahead and the team would have to put its best foot forward in the Games here to clinch the eagerly awaited gold medal, which they had last won in 1998 at Bangkok, only their second title in the history of the Games.
The major threats for India, apart from traditional foes Pakistan who have come here with great determination to avenge their 7-3 defeat in the Delhi Commonwealth Games [ Images ], would come from defending champions South Korea, aiming for a hat-trick, hosts China and an unpredictable Malaysia.
National coach Harendra Singh, who arrived here with the team on the 5th of this month, said the team's only target was to win the gold and a direct entry into the 2012 Olympics and nothing less.
"The actual target is to gain a direct berth in the London Olympics and for that we have to go for the gold and nothing less than that would solve the problem. We are improving day by day," Harendra said.
Aware that the weak point of the team was its defence, that stand exposed last month against Australia [ Images ] in the league phase as well as the final of the CWG, Harendra said the members were working hard on this aspect before the campaign gets underway.
"Defence was a concern in the Commonwealth Games and we are working hard on it," he said.