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For large parts, it resembled a football match on a wet, bitter-cold night. The ball spent more time in the air than on the turf because of the puddles, which made it impossible to pass along the surface. At times, it could’ve passed off as a rugby scrum—especially during the 25-yard free-hits and penalty corners.
It resembled anything but hockey. But hockey it was. India’s routine struggles, the desperation and missed chances, a tragicomedy in itself, certified it. The painful defeat was a further testimony. On a night when players needed a surfboard more than a hockey stick, Argentina refused to drown in the relentless waves of Indian attack and hung on to their 1-0 lead good enough to see them through and end India’s dream of playing its first final in front of the home crowd.
As India’s matches go, this too was a mental one. Argentina scored early—from one of the two chances they created in the whole match— drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat scoring from a smartly worked out penalty corner in the 17th minute. That moment on, India were all over their opponents. In the final quarter alone, India created enough chances (7) for the two matches but their conversion rate wasn’t good enough to win even one. They even had 80 percent possession in the last 15 minutes. “But I’d trade all that for a goal,” coach Sjoerd Marijne rued later.
But this was a rare night where all the analysis would fail. You really couldn’t compare the performances to the past matches. Nor could you use it as a reference for future games. The conditions did not allow either team to play their natural style. Strategies and formations never came into play— it was more about following the instincts, thinking on the feet and making less errors.
Because of International Hockey Federation’s questionable scheduling, Argentina got to know they will be playing India on Friday only at 10pm the previous night. If that uncertainty wasn’t enough, on match-day, until the players actually stepped on to the pitch, no one was sure if they would actually go ahead and play.
A depression over the Bay of Bengal had triggered heavy rainfall coupled with gusty winds since Friday morning. By afternoon, it had intensified and was only expected to get worse by the time the matches were scheduled to begin at 5:15. Holland’s scrappy 1-0 win over England indicated how tough the conditions were. “You can’t run and the rain hits your face. It was really, really tough,” England’s Matthew Dixon said.
But weather conditions weren’t the only concern for India’s match. The England-Holland match was played in front of a near-empty stadium and it the hosts feared Argentina would be handed a huge advantage if it stayed the same way for the second match. The crowd, as they had shown in the quarterfinal, has played a huge role in throwing India’s opponents off their game. There was nothing they could have done, though. The easier, more convenient, choice for the fans would’ve been to sit at home.
But as the push-back neared, it was easy to understand why players love playing in Bhubaneswar. It was pouring and chilly, it was tough to sit or stand comfortably in the stands. Yet, they turned up in thousands, sharing umbrellas and shivering in the cold. “We don’t get to watch such big matches so couldn’t have let this opportunity slip even if there was a cyclone,” Abit Ranjan Das, a 21-year-old fan, said. “We just have to stand. The players have to play in this.”
And playing wasn’t easy. The ball just wouldn’t travel. If it was hit, the ball would stop as if it was a Formula One car being brought to a grinding halt by pulling the hand brake. The players could not run with it as it got stuck in the surface. Running wasn’t easy either, with shoes and rest of the kit getting heavy after soaking in water. It impacted India, a side that thrives on its pace. Rather, a better way to put it would be to say that Argentina adjusted quicker. They realized it was pointless to run with the ball or try to pass it around. So, they played the long, aerial balls. India’s trapping, which has been dodgy the whole week, was being asked serious questions once again and under pressure, the defenders started to make errors.
India’s only game-plan was to not concede a penalty corner because of the threat Peillat poses from it. To the defenders’ credit, they allowed just one. But for a drag-flicker of Piellat’s quality, it was enough. With the ball travelling extremely slowly, Argentina’s ejector pushed it to the nearest point of the semi-circle. The variation surprised India, and Peillat slotted it past Akash Chikte without much trouble.
The water-logged pitch made it impossible for the Indians to use their trademark strategy of playing long, diagonal balls inside the ‘D’ while the wingers found it tough to run with the ball as it would stick to the surface. Argentina were interested in protecting their lead, especially since the players were exhausted after playing matches on consecutive days.
But India could not take advantage of their tiring opponents. Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh had chances late in the game but the Olympic champions soaked the pressure. They threw their bodies in the line and defended brutally. It wasn’t something you’d find in a hockey coaching manual. But this wasn’t a conventional game of hockey either.