Redemption, the mantra for India

Hockey: Final chance to clinch an Olympic berth beckons Nobbs men

Redemption, the mantra for India

 Redemption, perhaps, is the only cure for embarrassment, and that is exactly what the Indian men’s hockey team will aspire for when the all-important FIH London Olympics Qualifiers kicks off here on Saturday.

Already going through turbulent times, the national game hit the nadir four years ago when, for the first time in its illustrious history, it missed out on an Olympic appearance -- a situation almost unimaginable for the eight-time champions.

Expectedly, the repercussions of the Chile disaster were huge and the after effects are felt even now. The Indian Hockey Federation -- the body which was running the affairs of the sport then -- was disbanded by the Indian Olympic Association within months over corruption charges.

An ad-hoc body was soon formed, and after endless infighting and warnings from the International Hockey Federation, Hockey India finally took shape in late 2010, earning the nod of approval from the world body but receiving mixed reaction from state administrators.

In a bid to straighten things out, Jose Brasa was appointed as the coach of the national team and although the Spaniard did produce decent results by powering India to a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games and a bronze at the Asian Games, his tenure was often marred by his constant run-ins with the administrators, largely due to his constant questioning of the system’s archaic functioning.

Despite injecting new vibrancy into the national team, Brasa had to bid goodbye once his contract expired last November. While problems have been present for the last three decades and still do, the performance of the team over the last eight months signal hope of a better future, a beginning for which could be made at the iconic Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

Kick-starting a new era under Michael Nobbs last July, the men in blue have responded rather well to some stiff challenges. They pocketed the gold in the Asian Champions Trophy in August, struggled against the mighty Australians Down Under but missed out on a gold in heart-breaking fashion at the Champions Challlenge tournament in Johannesburg last November.

With major emphasis laid on fitness, the squad has been going through a rigorous training schedule over the last seven months with the sole focus being on securing an Olympic berth which is a must to rescue the sport that is desperately gasping for a breath of fresh air.

A lot of work has definitely gone in towards realising the London journey, with Nobbs restoring the good old attacking style of hockey that brought a smile on many people’s faces. Caught between the methodical European and the fluent Indian style, the Australian has successfully managed to take the dilemma out of many players’ minds, results of which was seen in the Champions Challenge and the home ‘Test’ series against South Africa where the team scored a lot of goals.

The squad containing a fine blend of youth and experience does inspire confidence, and coming in as the highest ranked team at 10, the task ahead of them does not appear extremely difficult. While there are a very few concerns in the attack and midfield that is loaded with some wonderful talents and trusted names, the only headache is the defence that continues to crumble under pressure, especially in the now customary final moments of a match. Former defensive ace and current government observer Dilip Tirkey was roped in a fortnight back to paper over the cracks and the move has boosted the confidence of Sandeep Singh, VR Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh a great deal.

The biggest challenge in the nine-day examination for India is expected to come from Canada and the dangerous Poland, with France also possessing enough ammunition to cause an upset on their day. The other two teams, Italy and Singapore, should provide nothing more than a token resistance.

On paper, the Indians appear primed to seal a spot in the February 26 final where the winner takes all. They have the men, the talent, and most importantly, the home support that should boost their adrenaline to cross the hurdle they so disastrously stumbled at the previous time.

Expectations are high, but if the players can match their potential, there is no reason why the favourites cannot fly to London.

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