Fifteen seconds away from getting their World Cup campaign off to a reasonably good start, India ended up losing to Belgium courtesy a goal from John-John Dohmens. For long suffering fans of the sport in India, the result, while disappointing, would not have been entirely surprising. It is not for the first time that hopes had slowly been raised, and the nervous seconds before the final hooter have witnessed a crushing last-minute strike by the opposition.
Fourteen years back, Pole Tomasz Cichy’s 69th minute equaliser knocked India out of medal-contention at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. While that may have been India’s most significant, there have been many instances of last gasp losses since. A 67th minute goal by Amir Rahim leveled the 2010 Asian Games semifinal for Malaysia, while another in the last minute of extra time by the same player ended India’s chance of earning a direct entry to the 2012 Olympics. More recently, at the Hockey World League finals earlier this year, Thilo Stralkowski’s 68th minute effort for Germany denied India a memorable win against the World No. 1 side. Later in the tournament, two goals in the last three minutes of the game consigned India to a 2-1 loss against Belgium in a 5th place qualification game.
Even before the current World Cup, it was clear that India’s coaching establishment were worried about the side’s inability to close out games. “If we are able to make sure we don’t crack in the final phase of the game and score goals rather than conceding like we have done in the past, we are capable of springing a surprise,” Roelant Oltmans said.
Belgium’s winning goal came not through some carefully planned sequence of passes but from a hopeful long ball. Mandeep Singh had the chance to clear the ball but inexplicably tried to dribble past the rushing Belgian forwards. Not surprisingly he was dispossessed. Stralkowski’s leveler a few months back came after the experienced Sardar Singh failed to trap a high ball. This isn’t a problem with just the current Indian team. Even the junior squad were knocked out of the Junior World Cup last December after South Korea scored twice in the final stages. Once a side starts conceding late goals then this becomes a habit. Thus when they expect to concede late goals, they do. Even if you don’t believe in pop psychology, and surely the men running the sport in India don’t, it’s clear India has a problem.
Jonathan is a senior correspondent based in New Delhi