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India ready with Plan B for Olympic qualification after Jakarta Asiad failure

Errol D’Cruz

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India captain Manpreet Singh addresses the media ahead of the FIH Men's Series Finals in Bhubaneswar starting Thursday. Photos: Hockey India

Panaji: India’s men’s hockey team would hope to complete formalities in the FIH Series Finals starting in Bhubaneswar on Thursday with minimal fuss.

The tournament, a pathway to Olympic qualification, will see eight nations split into two pools vie for two slots in the all-important Olympic qualifiers later this year. At World No. 5, India are well ahead of the field, the next best being South Africa (No. 16). Russia, opponents in the opener, are at No. 23.

Reaching the final at the Kalinga Stadium appears certain but in modern sport it’s never over until it’s over. The Bhubaneswar campaign represents India’s second attempt to qualify after Route 1 brought failure last year.

Defeat in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games semifinals against Malaysia brought India’s bid to qualify directly for the Olympics to a screeching halt. Only the gold medal would have ensured a spot in Tokyo next year.

If by some quirk India fail to finish in the top two in Bhubaneswar, it, however, won’t be the end of their quest. According to the Olympic qualifying format, India stand an excellent chance of being invited to the qualifiers on the basis of world rankings.

World No. 5 Team India face 23rd-ranked Russia in their FIH Men’s Series Finals opener.

It works like this:

Five continental champions qualify directly for the Olympics. So do hosts Japan who also won the Asian Games gold medal—a result that frees up a spot in the qualifiers.

There will be 12 nations at the Olympics which means there would be seven spots to fill after the hosts and four continental champions (Europe, the Americas, Oceania and Africa) book berths.

The qualifiers would comprise seven double-leg play-offs among teams qualifying from the following routes.

  • The elite FIH Pro League (four nations).
  • FIH Series Finals (for nations not in the FIH Pro League) in Kuala Lumpur, Bhubaneswar and Le Touquet, France (six nations in all).
  • Four nations, apart from the above, determined by world rankings

Further qualifying spots could be freed up by nations winning continental championships and booking berths in qualifiers from either the FIH Pro League or the FIH Series Finals.

For instance, Australia could well win the Oceania title and finish among the top four in the FIH Pro League.

Or, for that matter, Canada (who won the FIH Series Finals in Kuala Lumpur last month) could win the Pan-American Games gold medal to free up another spot in the qualifiers.

And then, Olympic hosts Japan in the fray in Bhubaneswar, could enter the final to free up yet another spot. The world rankings would then be considered to fill up vacant spots and India, at No. 5, are virtually guaranteed one. Even if no further vacant spots are created, India are likely to squeeze into the qualifiers on the basis of world rankings.

India may well have followed their quest of qualifying for the Olympic qualifiers by jetting across the continents in the FIH Pro League incepted in January this year.

Hockey India, however, withdrew the team from the competition after pulling out the women’s team it reckoned stood little or no chance in qualifying via the Pro League because of their relatively low ranking (currently No. 9). It was a queer sense of gender equality and it deprived the men’s team of experiencing what appears to be an epoch-making competition unprecedented in the annals of sport.

L-R: Players representing Russia, South Africa, USA and Mexico at the Captain’s Press Conference in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday.

The Pro League route apparently wouldn’t have made too much of a difference to India’s prospects of qualifying for the Olympics but vying with the big guns would have helped a team on the up gain immeasurably.

The travel, adaptation to conditions and the development of bench strength would have helped keep pace with the leaders—World Cup champions Belgium, Olympic champions Argentina, Australia, The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Spain.

Spain replaced India but the field reduced to eight when Pakistan withdrew after confirming participation.

The FIH Pro League, though, drew controversy in Europe where it threatened to play havoc with the club leagues—the very foundation of the game on the continent.

Tweaking of the regulations then allowed for a 32-player roster that has enabled team managements juggle with the playing 16 as national squad players assisted clubs during crucial league-ending phases in their respective countries as well as the European Hockey League (hockey’s version of the Champions League).

With India not enduring club vs country issues, a stable squad would have been a formidable force in the FIH Pro League with an excellent chance of finishing among the top four of the six-month event. Off the pitch, the Pro League with its home-and-away format would have done much for the sport’s profile as evinced in participating nations.

The Indian women, in the meantime, travel to Hiroshima, Japan, attempting to make the top two of the FIH Series Finals and thereby seal a spot in the Olympic qualifiers.

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Errol D’Cruz has covered sport for nearly four decades during which he worked as a free lancer and full-time staffer. He focuses on hockey and football but forays into table tennis, athletics and cricket. D’Cruz retired from the The Times of India last year after serving the newspaper for 17 years.