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WC low, Asiad high for men; women gun for Paris: Indian hockey in 2023 | Hockey

Asian Games medals, World Cup disappointment, a rather decorated coach stepping down and a former captain wondering out loud just why she isn’t able to make it to a team of whom she was the face not too long ago. The year 2023 had a bit of everything for Indian hockey.

While the men secured qualification to the Olympics by winning gold at the Asian Games, the women will be fighting for a spot in the qualifiers

It started off with all eyes on the men’s team as the country hosted the World Cup for a second consecutive time. As was the case in 2018, matches were held at Bhubaneshwar’s Kalinga Stadium but this time, it shared hosting duties with Rourkela’s Birsa Munda International Stadium. For all the dominance India have historically enjoyed at the Olympics their World Cup record has been rather famously barren. Only once have they managed to win the tournament, all the way back in 1975. That was also the third and thus far last occasion of India finishing in the top four of a World Cup. With the side still riding high on the bronze they had won at the Tokyo Olympics, expectations were for them to change this state of affairs. And yet, it was not to be, with India being stunned by New Zealand in a penalty shootout of the crossover match and thus failing to make it to the quarterfinals. They ultimately finished ninth in the tournament – the worst show by a host in the history of the tournament.

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In the aftermath, head coach Graham Reid stepped down and South African Craig Fulton has been the team’s coach ever since. Among Reid’s recommendations was for the team to have a “mental conditioning coach”, something that he admitted he should have pushed harder for and so among Fulton’s staff is Paddy Upton, who famously worked with the Indian cricket team that won the 2011 World Cup, in that role. The major tournaments that India played since then have been ones in which they were the highest ranked side by a country mile but that little asterisk is negated by the fact that the team did end up beating the lower-ranked opposition with the kind of ruthlessness that has been puzzlingly absent in the crunch fixtures. A case in point being the 2018 Asian Games, where they were the reigning gold medallists and were outright favourites. And yet, they ended up settling for bronze after losing in the semi-finals to lowly Malaysia.

Going into Hangzhou 2023, India had steamrolled every opposition in the men’s Asian Champions Trophy, a tournament that was pretty much a dress rehearsal to the Games. This time, though, they got the gold, thumping in a whopping 58 goals in the group stage and beating Japan 5-1 in the final. The gold medal also meant that the team sealed qualification to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Longer route to qualification for women’s team

The Indian women’s team, however, had to settle for bronze after a rather stunning 4-0 defeat to China in semi-finals put them out of running for the gold medal and thus a direct spot to the Olympics. Head coach Janneke Schopmann cut a frustrated figure at the end of the game against China and Among the stated that it was unfortunate India were not playing in the FIH Pro League. While the men’s team had a steady stream of highly competitive games to play against some of the best teams in the world in the men’s Pro League , the women’s team had failed to make it to the 2022/23 edition. It meant that India went into the Asian Games with a handful of matches under their belt which they got on tours of Australia, Germany and South Africa and in the 100th Anniversary Spanish Hockey Federation International Tournament.

After this came some off field drama with former captain Rani Rampal expressing her frustrations at not being able to make it back to the Indian team. Rani was pretty much the face of Indian women’s hockey going into the Tokyo Olympics but has hardly been able to get a match. All of this meant that Schopmann came under significant pressure this year but that was eased somewhat by the team winning the Asian Champions Trophy on November 5.

The real test for her and the team, though, would start from January 13 in Ranchi when India play in the Olympic qualifiers. India are placed in Group B alongwith New Zealand, USA and Italy. India are the second-highest ranked side in the tournament after Germany. They have to finish in the top three of the qualifiers to make it to the Olympics and if they do so, they will get the match practice they lacked this year before they travel to Paris as India have qualified for the 2023/24 Pro League.

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