Updated: August 5, 2021 6:43:59 am
At the end of it all, tears rolled down their cheeks again. This time, out of agony.
Only a few centimetres separated India from another historic victory. Eighteen seconds remained in the match when a cross was drilled in from the left flank that sent the entire Argentine defence into panic. The ball zipped along the surface, past the wall of defenders hovering over the semicircle, snuck under several sticks inside the ‘D’ until Navneet Kaur, bruised and bandaged, stretched her arm out and made the faintest of connections. Unfortunately for her, and India, the ball got deflected straight towards the goalkeeper Belen Succi, who still had to be alert to pad it away.
The dramatic sequence played out in ultra slow-mo as the entire stadium, one half-full stand at least, held its breath. Who knows what would have happened if the deflection was just a centimetre to Succi’s left or right? That is how close India were to securing a spot in an Olympic final. Instead, they lost their semifinals to the South American giants 2-1 but not before reminding how far they’ve come since the nightmare that the Rio Olympics were for them.
India will have one more shot at a medal, a bronze, when they will take on Britain in the playoff match on Friday. It was the 4-1 loss against the 2016 champions that triggered India’s turnaround in Tokyo. Friday will be a chance for them to complete the full circle but before that, they’ll have to shrug off the disappointment of the semifinal defeat suffered on Wednesday. “We know how to deal with losses,” coach Sjoerd Marijne said. “We have lost a lot.”
Perhaps it was the winning feeling that felt different to the players coming into Wednesday’s semifinal. The euphoria following the win over Australia the day before, by far the biggest win in the history of women’s hockey, hadn’t entirely subsided when they had to step out on the field for another, potentially bigger, game, an Olympic semifinal. “They have always seen these things on TV,” Marijne said.
Suddenly, they were a part of it; all too much for them to soak in. The nerves didn’t show immediately. India were faster off the blocks among the two teams, starting with a high tempo, moving the ball along the carpet at dizzying speed and earning a penalty corner in the second minute itself. And when Gurjit Kaur flicked the ball past Succi, it felt like India had never been away from the field following the Australia win.
Scoring the goal so early meant inviting the wrath of the wounded Argentines. As it is, the South Americans, although very sharp on the ball, play a very physical game. Once they went down by a goal, the former world champions and 2012 Olympics silver medalists tried to pulverize India with their one-two combination of quick passing and hard tackling.
The earlier avatar of this Indian team would have collapsed quicker than a pack of cards in the face of such pressure. But there’s something about Marijne’s team. They matched Argentina tackle-for-tackle, shoulder push-for-shoulder push. None of it was dirty tackling; only one card in the entire match shows how clean both teams were in their attempts to dispossess one another.
But both sets of players were not ready to pull out of any 50-50 challenges, even if it meant risking an injury, as Navneet experienced with 30 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Navneet and Agustina Gorzelany went for a loose ball inside the Argentine ‘D’, both with a high desire to get to the ball first, ended up with a nasty collision with the Indian forward suffering a slight cut on the eyebrow that had to be taped.
It doesn’t take a lot for Carlos ‘Chapa’ Retegui to pop out his wide eyes. But on Wednesday, that remained his constant look – be it each time India pressed ahead, his team created a chance or if he contested an umpire’s decision.
For all their effort, though, India weren’t as perfect as they were against Australia. And Argentina weren’t going to give them the kind of space the Hockeyroos would offer, which allowed India to play its game. Against Los Leonas, India couldn’t execute their favoured give-and-go style of hockey, which involves passing the ball on the run, and their long balls, a strategy to bypass the Argentine midfield, were easily intercepted.
So, Argentina enjoyed more possession and as the minutes ticked by, the nervousness within the Indian players too began to increase – it started to dawn upon them that they were only a few minutes away from an Olympic final.
Errors began to creep in and Argentina took advantage of it, scoring twice from penalty corners to complete their comeback. India tried to go all out in the fourth quarter, with Neha Goyal putting up an incredible shift in the attacking areas of the pitch.
Argentina, though, soaked up the pressure in the dying moments of the match, including the last-minute deflection that Navneet tried.
When the hooter sounded, Indian players left the field teary-eyed once again. This time, it was because of the pain of losing.
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