In the end, history remains intact. No Indian team — men’s or women’s — had made it to a World Cup semi-final in 43 years. And the wait continues. An earnest and hardworking group of players, a shrewd coach and the luck of the draw had given the Indian girls a great opportunity to enter uncharted territory, but instead it was the Irish, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament who have to pay 550 euros each to be part of their national team, who will line up in the semi-final against Spain on the weekend. India faced the two lowest-ranked teams in the knockout rounds at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre, having beaten 17th-ranked Italy in the cross-over game. For the record, Spain are ranked a spot below India at 11th, and if they had prevailed against the Irish, India could have fancied their chances of making it to the title clash. But that is a discussion for another day. The Indian campaign was remarkable in the never-say-die spirit and grit shown in clashes against higher-ranked opponents.
However on Thursday, the enormity of the occasion seemed to get to the girls and they faltered, not least in the penalty shootout where the match was decided after an error-strewn game which did not see any goals. Sjoerd Marijne’s charges messed up their first three attempts as skipper Rani Rampal, Monika and Navjot Kaur were thwarted by Irish custodian Ayeisha McFerran.
Her Indian counterpart Savita also saved the first two Irish efforts, but Roisin Upton and Alison Meeke were successful after that and by the time Reena Khokhar converted, all it needed was for Chloe Watkins to seal the deal, and she did the honours in style as the Irish prevailed 3-1 in the shootout.
It is the third consecutive time that Ireland has had the better of India, including once earlier in the tournament. The match itself never rose to any great heights, with both teams wary of making a crucial mistake. Countless times, the final pass that would provide a clear shot on goal went awry. India, who ran roughshod over Italy in the previous match, looked disjointed. The Irish, in contrast, looked up for it and were quicker to the loose ball, faster and better in 50-50 situations.
But to the Indians’ credit, they never lost their defensive shape and did not allow their opponents to have a clean look at goal. Savita had to make just one save, and was totally untroubled in the second half. If anything, it was India who fashioned the rare half-chances, with Rani hitting the side netting in the second quarter and they earned the only penalty corner of the game in the last quarter, which went waste. The Indians profited from only three of the 20 they got in the whole competition.
The closest the Irish came to breaking the deadlock was Anna O’Flanagan’s deflection from Kathryn Mullan’s pass being saved by the Indian goalkeeper in the 23rd minute.
It was only in the final 15 minutes when fatigue started to kick in that the game opened up a little. India were coming into the match after playing an extra match while Ireland had reached the last-eight stage directly by topping their pool and had been out of action since Sunday. But that hardly seemed to make any difference.