By B Shrikant
Tokyo, July 22 (IANS) The first match at the Olympics has always been a matter of concern for the Indian men’s hockey team in the last eight editions since the Moscow Olympics in 1980, when they last won gold.
So, as Graham Reid’s men, hoping to end the four-decade-long gold medal drought, get ready for their opening Pool A match against New Zealand in the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, former India stars have advised the current lot to be extra careful in the opening encounter — for that will set the tone for the entire tournament and eventually decide their fate.
“Winning the first match will be very important,” former India star Merwyn Fernandes, a member of the gold medal-winning team of the 1980 Olympics told IANS.
“If they lose, they will have to do a lot of catching up. Even a draw will put unnecessary pressure on the team because New Zealand, Spain, and Japan are the lower-ranked teams in the group,” he added.
However, various Indian teams have found the first match a difficult proposition.
In the eight editions, barring 2008 when India had failed to qualify for the Olympics, between 1980 and 2020, the team has lost the first match five times. Of the three wins, one has come against the United States (5-1) in 1984 and against Ireland (3-2) in 2016. During this period, India have twice played the Netherlands in their tournament opener and lost on both occasions –in 2004 (1-3) and 2012 (2-3).
That is the reason why Fernandes, his 1980 colleague, MM Somaya, and 1984 Olympics teammate Joaquim Cavalho warn India, usually jittery starters, against complacency in their campaign opener.
“I remember in the 1988 edition in Seoul that India played the Soviet Union in the very first match and we never thought we will lose to them but we lost. And to come back after dropping points is very difficult,” said Fernandes.
New Zealand too have targetted the first three matches. Head coach Darren Smith says it’s crucial to get points from their opening three games starting with India on Saturday, despite India being four spots higher than the ninth-ranked Kiwis in the world rankings.
The current tournament format is such that India need to finish among top four in the six-team pool to qualify for the quarter-final. Considering India’s ranking and recent performances, that should not be a problem.
However, finishing in the top two in the pool is vital as that would mean avoiding potential banana-skin encounters against teams like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany in the quarter-finals. In Rio, the team ran into Belgium in the quarter-finals and lost.
That is the reason why Manpreet Singh and his boys will have to be very careful on Saturday.
“The first game is very important. Indian usually take their time to settle down but we have a crucial match against Australia following up, So, getting maximum points from this encounter is a must. India have always started on a poor note and they have to do a lot of catching up,” Carvalho told IANS on Thursday.
New Zealand are expected to crowd their defence and look for quick counterattacks against India.
“They will have to be careful about the counter-attacks from New Zealand, avoid conceding penalty corners and soft goals, capitalise on field goal opportunities and convert penalty corners,” said Carvalho.
Fernandes agreed that scoring early will be very important but India should not get into panic mode if they fail to score in the first two quarters.
While the Indian teams in the past have had problems with the first match, Somaya says this team is different from the teams of the past and very well prepared.
“This team is one of the fittest. The Tokyo Olympics team is one fittest to leave our shores. This enables them to play high-intensity hockey for the entire duration of a match: said Somaya.
“Besides, the players are more aware tactically than earlier teams. Mentally too, the team seems more composed and has conquered the fear of failure against higher-ranked higher ranked teams,” said Somaya.
All three said that India have to be very careful against New Zealand for they have a bigger match lineup next — against Australia. Losing points in the first two encounters will be suicidal for the team.
Fernandes and Carvalho said that India will have to be aggressive so that they can counter the defensive tactics of the rivals and create more chances — more penalty corners as they have more short-corner specialists.
By B Shrikant