The Days of the Red Letters that began with the 1928 bang and continued to adorn the history of India hockey all so often until the 1970s it began to disappear in the 80s.
While Pakistan was the one to interrupt India’s gold medal campaign in 1960, several other teams like Australia, West Germany and the Netherlands came to prominence in the decade that followed to open up world hockey like never before.
The dominance of the Indian subcontinent, in field hockey, was soon to end in a way few could have imagined.
With the exception of bronze for Pakistan at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, teams from the subcontinent have failed to finish on the podium ever since the Men in Green won gold in 1984 following India’s triumph in Moscow.
Even so, few could have imagined that the day would indeed come when the Olympic field hockey competition would be held without the presence of India – which boasts an almost unbeatable record in the tournament.
On March 9, 2008, the nervous Indian team conceded two early goals against the UK in the final qualifiers for the Santiago Olympics in Chile, and the 0-2 result told the sad story of Indian hockey reaching its absolute lowest level.
Retreating from the edge
For the first time in the history of the Olympics, the Beijing Games in 2008 witnessed a hockey competition without India, prompting the world’s media to analyze the catastrophic decline of the game’s former giants as fans at home mourned inconsolably.
Hara-kiri continued as the Indians lost the 2010 Asian Games semifinals to Malaysia and were forced to re-qualify, this time to London 2012 via a relatively simpler qualifying route.
Michael Nobbs ’boyfriend may not have been a favorite for a medal in London, but even so, 12th place was the last thing the Indian hockey fraternity expected, and it’s no surprise that the Australian coach returned home a year later.
How, then, did the Indian hockey team, which was written off by everyone and everyone, reach the 2016 Olympic knockout after a 36-year break?
The resurrection that preceded Rio 2016
Cynics argue that the Indians benefited from a change in format that included the introduction of a quarterfinal that gave two additional teams in both groups a chance to test their strength in the knockouts.
A closer look at everything that happened before and after Rio gives a different picture – one that points to the definite resurrection that began with India’s victory at the 2014 Asian Games.
In the 2014 Champions Trophy, the brave Indians beat the Dutch in the group stage before beating Belgium in the quarter-finals and narrowly losing in the semi-finals to a strong Pakistani team.
A rare win and draw against the Australians in the 2015 Raipur tests, right after the victory against the Australians in the Azlan Shah Cup earlier that year, signaled the growth of a team that feared nothing else.
The silver trophy of the champions after the controversial defeat by Australia on the eve of the 2016 Olympic Games was quite enough to raise the morale of the rising team, which was again emphasized by the results in Rio.
The victory over eventual Olympic gold medalists Argentina in the group stage of 2016 was not a bad feat, but a few defensive misses by the Indians cost dearly in the matches that followed.
Almost there – but not really !!
Christopher Ruhr’s goal in the last minute deprived India of a vital point in Group B as the Germans sneaked ahead 2-1, while Mink van der Weeden scored late from the PC for the Dutch and thus achieved a victory with identical difference against Manpreet Singh’s team.
Hopes rose as the Indians sailed into the quarterfinals, but the nation watched in horror and collective disbelief as the Roelant Oltmans boys lost to Belgium’s eventual silver medal winner by a margin of 1-3.
Fans, however, welcomed the arrival of a new-looking Indian team that has not looked back since – also acknowledging that the boys have lost from a worthy confrontation in the form of the Belgian team that now rules the hockey world thanks to its consistency at the top.
Indeed, a few more points in the bag, and Oltmans’ side could come across relatively easier opponents like Spain – or Australia – who have started fighting the Indians like never before.
By the way, the Australians were defeated by the Netherlands 0-4 in the quarterfinals, which prompted a retrospective theory that India would not play with the Kookaburras instead of Belgium, which became the world champion.
The quarterfinalists from Rio kept the momentum under coach Sjoerd Marijne with bronze in the 2017 World League of Heroes final and silver for the Champions Trophy with Harendra Singh at the helm.
Most importantly, however, the Indians, who until the 2014 Commonwealth Games usually lost by a wide margin against teams like Australia, are now worried that they will never give up without a general fight.
So much so that it has been a long time since the Indians were attacked from either side as they have been in the past, which speaks volumes about the persistence of the present crop.
India’s biggest rivals Pakistan did not qualify Tokyo 2020 even as Graham Reid’s team is considered potential medal winners.
Coach Reid, however, is well aware that no tournament is harder to win than the Olympics – after all, if the once indomitable Australians could only win one Olympic gold, any team in Tokyo will appreciate the enormity of the task at hand.
For the Indians, history is also at stake – which could only help this incredibly talented and determined group of players to raise the bar and raise the bar with a million loyal fans praying for success from afar.
Two consecutive opening games against New Zealand and Australia could prove to be the most important of all and set the tone for the rest of the competition, as the Indians want to go far beyond where they finished the Olympic Hockey Center in Rio.