MANAGER Roelant Oltmans has demanded a ‘perfect game.’ Coach Harendra Singh chooses the words ‘error free’. Whatever they may choose to call it, the players have declared themselves ready. India began its preparation for the Junior World Cup two years and eight months ago under Harendra Singh. Never before has there been this sort of focus, stability and funding in getting any Indian team ready for a major hockey event. Crores have been spent on the team’s preparation, on numerous exposure tours and test series.
Now, it all boils down to the 70 minutes on Sunday. You can sense the anticipation building up in the city for the Junior World Cup final between India and Belgium. On Saturday, hundreds turned up just to watch the Indian team practice. The players, who are just out of teens and — till recently — were chasing their heroes for autographs, were now being chased by the selfie-hunters.
They police had to form a chain for the players to walk the 20-odd yards from the practice pitch to the bus. But even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, it was only after the intervention of assistant coach Roger van Gent and scientific advisor Cody Tribe that the players hopped in the waiting Volvo and departed for the hotel.
“Tomorrow’s the big day boys, don’t lose your focus now,” Tribe told the players, who were visibly overwhelmed with the sudden attention showered on them. How the players manage to handle the attention — and expectations — on Sunday will be crucial. Perhaps, the deciding factor as well. If the semifinal was anything to go by, the atmosphere at the Dhyan Chand stadium will be something players from neither teams would have experienced before.
Belgium coach Jeroen Baart wished to play India in the final just for this reason. “I want my players to experience what it’s like playing in such atmosphere,” he said after the semifinal win over Germany.
There’s another factor that would’ve played role in Baart’s choice of opponent in the final — India’s tendency of playing to the crowd, especially in big matches. Such is the energy in the stadium that the players tend to get carried away.
Against a team like Belgium, which is structurally solid, that would be suicidal. In the last five months, Belgium have shown they aren’t merely the rising power of world hockey. They are the new powerhouse.
Living up to their potential, they reached the final of Rio Olympics before losing to Argentina. Their colts will be keen to go a step ahead on Sunday. The Red Cougers have been exceptional defensively throughout the World Cup, especially their goalkpeer Loic van Doren. Belgium have reached this far in the tournament primarily because of Van Doren’s brave performances in the quarterfinal and semifinal.
Against defending champions Germany, he pulled of nearly half-a-dozen spectacular saves in the second half alone. He then followed it up with an even better show in the shootouts, pulling off stunning saves to hand Germany a rare defeat in penalties and knock them out in the process.
But before they think of scoring past him, India’s first challenge will be to reach till the Belgian goalkeeper. Their senior team has followed a set template against India of late — score early and defend deep to deny India any space in the ‘D’. With technically strong players, they’ve managed them with some success, as was evident at the Olympics where they beat India 1-0.
Belgium will be a mix of the ultra-defensive Spain and occasionally-aggressive Australia but expect them to be structurally more disciplined. To unlock their defence, India will rely on diagonal balls by Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar. The angles they find and pace at which they hit have troubled several defences, thus setting up scoring opportunities for strikers and earning penalty corners. The conversion rate, however, has been woeful so far. Luckily for India, the strikers shown opportunism to score remarkable field goals, relying largely Harjeet Singh’s ability to bring forwards into the game using his flair and Mandeep Singh’s intelligent movement in the ‘D’. But whenever these two players have been closely marked by the opponents, India have struggled to launch counterattacks which make them so dangerous.