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Hockey: India among the favourites in Paris, but there are a lot of problem areas, says Joaquim Carvalho

Mumbai, June 26 2024-

Indian hockey teams have always gone to the Olympic Games weighed down by huge expectations. In the last four decades, the team has had to live up to the gigantic legacy of eight gold medals that their peers have amassed in the quadrennial extravaganza since 1928.

The expectations from the men’s team have grown manyfold since it won a historic bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympic Games. That medal has whetted our appetite and now the fans not only expect them to win another medal but also want it to be gold or silver.

In Paris, India are in a tough group with defending champions Belgium, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, and Ireland as other teams. The first target for the team will be to finish in the top four and make it to the quarterfinals.

With the Olympic Games around a month away, IANS spoke to former India player and coach Joaquim Carvalho to take stock of the Indian men’s hockey team’s preparations and their chances in Paris.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: The 2024 Olympics is now around 30 days away, what do you think of India’s chances in Paris?

A: As usual, India goes in the Olympics as one of the favourites, along with teams like Australia, Belgium, Germany and Holland. But at the same time, I would not rule out the other team’s chances. Today, hockey has become so advanced, I would say, and so unpredictable that all the teams participating in the Olympics have a chance of, you know, having a podium finish. But having said that, the contenders will be, as usual, Belgium, Australia, India, Germany, and Holland. I would rate them to be figuring out the last four.

I won’t rule out Spain, France, especially France, which are hosting the Olympics, and who are going to take part in these games are a far improved team than what they were about a couple of years ago, having finished on the podium in the last two, three Junior World Cups. So, there’s a mix of, you know, a lot of youngsters, seniors, and players, and they got to be the dark horses for a podium finish overall.

Q: How do you see the Indian team’s preparations, how have they gone about? Should they have done something more?

A: See, India has all the preparations, that they could have asked for. They went to Australia to play a series, and they got hammered 5-0, which is, you know, not a good result and not a good preparation, I would say. Even though the coach (Craig Fulton) was saying that they were going to analyse all their strengths and weaknesses and what is required on that. But this was not expected of a top team like India which have been doing well. We have always found Australia to be very difficult to beat going. but losing 5-0… And I think, you know, a few years back, like in the seventies and eighties, this result would have, you know, created a big hue and cry all over the country.

But now that the Indian team, you know, has been doing fairly well, the results in the big tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics have not been coming as per the expectations. Even in the Pro League 2004, we had one of the worst-ever finishes. In the last four seasons of the Pro League, India’s performance against the top teams has been very erratic and inconsistent.

We start very slow, we concede early goals, then fight back, level the score, and then lose the final plot. I think that is where we should work and try to be aware that this should be rectified and not be, you know, ironed over in our process or our quest for the Olympic medal.

Q: Since the team won a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics, there are huge expectations that they should improve on the colour of the medal in Paris. How realistic are these expectations? How difficult will it be for the players to handle this pressure?

A: After a medal win, the expectations are always high. But as I said, in today’s hockey, there are so many teams in dominant world hockey today that it is very difficult to predict whether you will get a medal for sure. And I would say the Indian team is fairly lacking in consistency. As far as the other teams go, just not going deep into what they have done and how they prepared, but going by the results, they, you know, peak at the right time. And their performances, if you see, even in the Pro League have been very, very good compared to the Indian team’s performance.

Whether you take Germany, Belgium, or Great Britain, you know, their performance in the Pro League, if you analyze it, they have been on the right line for the Olympics. I would say as far as the Indian team goes, and I have been saying regularly, that team won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. But if you analyze the Tokyo win, besides the win against Germany, we were struggling. Luckily, now the format has changed that, you know, if you don’t make it to the last four, you got a quarterfinal. Earlier, you have to qualify for the top four but now you have to qualify for the top-four from your own pool/Group. Before this, teams had to qualify for the top two from their pool.

From the last four, now it is the last eight. So you still have a chance to get back into the game and you should have a chance to, you know, fight back. So there are chances galore over here. In the quarterfinals, on any given day, that particular team, whether it is Team A or Team B, whether it is the top seed or, you know, the bottom seed, all have got the chances of, you know, upsetting and creating history and beating them and then moving to the semifinals. So that is where we need to capitalise on and I think that is where you know, this format is not pro-India but I would say is very, very favourable to India because the Indian hockey team has always been, as I said, not consistent in its performance. So I hope this type of format is to their liking and their advantage overall.

The Pro League has exposed the defense as an area of concern while goal-scoring too is a problem area. What other areas do you think the team needs to work on?

A: See, I said we need to avoid conceding goals in crucial moments. We’ve been conceding early goals. The game has started and you have conceded a goal. You see, in the Pro League, we conceded goals in the beginning only. And that puts you on the back pedal and then you have to fight back to get the equalizer.

And then, you know, instead of dictating terms you are being dictated to by the opponent. The defence also has been quite sloppy in their movements. And I would say that skipper Harmanpreet Singh has not been what Harmanpreet earlier was a couple of years back. I don’t know, maybe, because they are shaking it easy or maybe because of the Pro League or so many matches they’ve been playing.

But I hope that he turns it around and tries to be a pillar of strength in the Indian team because just standing in the middle, which I know was the gameplan, he was always been found wanting. Especially in the movements and the overall the defense has not been as compact and tight as it was before, you know. And the attacking line also needs to do well. They know if the attacking line doesn’t do well, there’s a lot of pressure on the defence. And that is where we need to improve.

The forward line too has faced issues in recent times…

A: When I say the attackers have to do well, I say that they need to score goals, they need to create chances, they need to also defend well, cover up the gaps, and not allow the opponents to build on the counterattack again. So that is where. When you don’t allow the opponents to build on the counter that means you need to be very steady. Your attack should be very strong, compact and precise which results in the goal or a hit out, which will not result in a counterattack.

So here I would not say that if defense is not compact if your defense is lethargic which means they are not defending well but are also giving goals, then it is a huge area of concern. The penalty corners are also a matter of concern. The rate of conversion of penalty corners has not been very satisfactory.

So this is where we need to also update our skills. Where penalty corners are concerned, we just say that we need to improve, need to improve. But by the time we improve, the tournament is already over.

Ahead of the tour of Australia, coach Craig Fulton had said, ahead of the Australia tour, we’ll see what areas they are lacking in, what areas to improve and what is Australia’s strong points.

But they ended up losing 5-0, which is a very, very bad score, very, very bad result and that doesn’t augur well, you know, in the preparation. But I hope that the Indian team does well and, you know, all these experiences they have gathered in the Pro League and the Australian series is put on the back bench.

Q: What else does the team need to do?

They should work on their weaknesses and also on their strong points and start doing well in the Olympics where the first match against New Zealand is going to be a tough game. New Zealand can’t be taken lightly because they have two very senior players one of them being Simon Child — I think he’s playing his fourth Olympics. But New Zealand also not going to be weak because in the Olympics everybody comes to win and it’s a different ballgame altogether. (Agency)

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