If the purpose of the Junior World Cup is to provide a peek into the future, then there are plenty of reasons for the Indians to get excited. The under-21 side lost to The Netherlands 3-0 in the semifinals on Sunday, but the scoreline does not tell the entire story.
For three-quarters of the match, India looked their technically-superior opponents in the eye, didn’t give them respect any more than what was needed and in the opening 15 minutes, even outplayed them. The tears streaming down the faces of the Indian players, and the relieved look on the Dutch faces after the full time provided a more accurate account of the match.
Heading into the tournament, The Netherlands, who’ve won the most number of titles (three) were the odds-on favourites to lift the trophy once again. They displayed that authority on field, swatting aside every opponent they had faced so much so that their goalkeepers barely had anything to do throughout the group stage – heading into this match, the Netherlands had gone four hours without conceding.
After a thrilling 30-minute period, India trail by one-goal at the break.
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) April 10, 2022
It would have been understandable if India would’ve felt slightly intimidated by Netherlands’ overwhelming supremacy but the batch of ’22 knows only one way to play – without any fear. That’s how they earlier defeated Germany, who hammered England 8-0 in the second semifinal.
And so, right from push back, they took the game to their opponents. Inside the opening 30 seconds itself, captain Salima Tete managed to create the first goal-scoring opportunity, firing a ball towards Mumtaz Khan who sliced it over the crossbar.
The Dutch had barely settled into the match and India created another glorious chance. Salima and Mumtaz combined again, minutes after the first attempt, but this time, Mumtaz’s shot hit the goal post. India went on to win three penalty corners in the opening exchanges.
India were causing the Netherlands more problems in the opening 15 minutes than they had faced in the entire tournament. Eric Wonink’s side did most things right – had more possession, better chances, and won penalty corners. But they just couldn’t find the back of the net. Almost always, big teams will make you pay if the chances aren’t converted. It’s a lesson the under-21s learned the hard way. For, it did not take a lot for the Dutch to show their class.
In the 12th minute, a Dutch defender picked up the ball near her ‘D’ and played it square to a teammate a couple of yards away. It looked like a harmless pass but within seconds, it turned into something really dangerous for India. They went back and forth at first, moved from one flank to another as the ball exchanged sticks with precision and speed.
Stills from the semi-Finals of FIH Hockey Women's Junior World Cup match between the India and the Netherlands on April 10th in South Africa! #IndiaKaGame #HockeyIndia #JWC2021 #RisingStars #hockeyinvites @CMO_Odisha @sports_odisha @IndiaSports @Media_SAI pic.twitter.com/VqGnWDDXgE
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) April 10, 2022
The Indian players were chasing shadows and before they knew it, a one-two near the ‘D’ from Luna Fokke to Noor Omrani sliced open the defence. Omrani played a through ball towards Tessa Beetsma, who expertly slotted it beyond Bichu Kharibam. For all their dominance, India were the first to concede following this brilliant 18-pass move.
The Indian players, however, did not let their shoulders drop. Upfront, Sharmila Devi weaved her way past the Dutch defenders, spraying passes to the forwards. Lalremsiami and Tete provided the thrust in the attacking third, where Beauty Dungdung and Sangeeta were a constant threat. Ishika Chaudhary and Priyanka made sure the backline did not lose its shape.
India showed enough resilience to keep the scoreline within their reach going into the final quarter but as the minutes were ticking by, especially in the third quarter, there was an increasing drop in their intensity. That’s where – during the third and fourth periods – India, as Wonink described, ‘let it slip’.
India barely saw the ball in the second half and as a consequence, could neither create an opportunity for a field goal nor win any penalty corner. In the final 15 minutes, as they tried to press forward in desperation, they left their defence vulnerable and the Netherlands were too clinical to let the opportunity slip by and settled the match with two quick goals.
Coaches often argue that results in tournaments like these, which are designed to develop players, are secondary. The performances, although, do give an indication of what the future could hold. In that sense, the Netherlands – who have now scored 46 goals in the Junior World Cup and conceded 0 – look on course to extending their dominance at the senior level.
India, a well-oiled unit, will hope the resilience shown by the players in this tournament will continue to reflect in the senior side, given more than half-a-dozen players have already made their international debuts.
All’s not lost yet, however. On Tuesday, India will take on England in the bronze medal playoff.
It’s a repeat of the 2013 Junior World Cup third-place match. Back then, India secured a first-ever podium finish, a performance that ushered in a new era for women’s hockey in India. Wonink will hope his team will carry forward that legacy.