Dhanraj Pillay has in the past called it one of the best Indian teams he had been part of, which fell agonisingly short of a possible podium finish.
Part of that team was Viren Rasquinha, who these days weaves India’s Olympic dreams as the Director and CEO of Olympic Gold Quest – an organisation that supports Indian athletes in their ‘quest’ for an ‘Olympic gold’.
Dhanraj Pillay controls the ball with his stick against Argentina during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. (Photo by William West/AFP via Getty Images)
For the Indian men’s hockey team, the winner of the most Olympic hockey gold medals for the country till date (8), but no podium finish since 1980, that quest will begin once again in 10 days from now in Tokyo. And Rasquinha feels this could be India’s chance.
“I think we have the best chance that we have had in the longest time. For the men’s team, I don’t think there can be a better opportunity than this. There definitely hasn’t been in the last 20 years, since the Sydney Olympics, when we just missed out on the semifinals,” said the former hockey international talking to TimesofIndia.com.
Of the 11 other participating teams in Tokyo, India have beaten all but Canada in the last two years. India never got a chance to play Canada in that period.
Rasquinha finds that unprecedented and a possible sign of things to come in Tokyo.
“I think in the last four years, we have beaten every top team in the world. That hasn’t happened in the previous Olympics. I think teams like Australia and Germany, the traditional powerhouses, are not as strong as what they were in previous Olympics. That may be compensated by teams like Belgium becoming really strong. Having said that, it’s not going to be easy,” he further told TimesofIndia.com.
India will begin their campaign against New Zealand on July 24 under the leadership of Manpreet Singh, who will also be one of the flag bearers of the Indian contingent at the Opening Ceremony, along with MC Mary Kom. Australia, defending champions Argentina, Spain and hosts Japan are the other four teams in Pool A.
Indian men’s team captain Manpreet Singh. (Hockey India Photo)
“That’s not a single easy match, even Japan are the Asian Games champions. So you cannot take any team lightly. The first important thing is to get out of a very tough group,” said Rasquinha, a former midfielder, who has also captained India.
“So number one, come in the top four and enter the quarterfinals. When we enter the quarters, from the other pool, on rankings, maybe Holland, Germany, Belgium and England (Great Britain) will come through. Every team is tough, every team just played the semifinals of the European Championship. Those were incredibly high-quality matches. My point being that when we come to the quarterfinals, we are going to face a very tough challenge,” Rasquinha further explained.
India have over the years found it hard to crack the knockout code when it comes to the Olympics and World Cups. At the Rio Games in 2016, India lost to Belgium in the quarterfinals and at the 2018 World Cup, they lost to the Netherlands. That’s been a monkey refusing to get off world No. 5 India’s back.
“The playoff matches are going to be really hard,” Rasquinha added. “But having said that, this is the best chance of a medal that we have had in the last 20 years because it’s a good team. They have been playing well over the last four years, and this Olympics is so unpredictable.
“I think it’s the first Olympics where there are no clear favourites as such. I think any one of the top six teams in the world can win it.” he further told TimesofIndia.com.
The former India captain refused to get into the nitty-gritties of the selection matters. Leaving out veterans like SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh raised a few eyebrows, but Rasquinha threw his weight behind coach Graham Reid and the 16 member team selected.
“India have hardly played any matches in the last one and a half years (due to the pandemic). The coach and the selectors are making decisions based on what’s happening in the training camp. When you appoint a foreign coach or a national team coach, you have got to trust the coach to make the best decisions,” he opined.
The Olympics don’t allow a squad of more than 16 players. However, Covid-forced modifications mean that now there are two ‘alternate players’ and a reserve goalkeeper who will travel with the squad.
According to the revised rules, a coach can pick his 16 players ahead of a match from among the squad of 16 plus the two alternate players. It widens the scope of selection just in case there is a Covid strike within a team. The reserve goalkeeper, however, can only come in from a fresh match to replace the first-choice goalkeeper in case of an injury or reasons permitted by the tournament officials.
“When you are selecting a 16-member squad for the Olympics, you can’t select based on reputation,” Rasquinha continued. “You select based on current form, fitness, being able to play seven matches in 11-12 days, being able to play multiple positions. All these factors are taken into account,” said Rasquinha, sharing his thoughts.
“I believe we should trust the chief coach. Although I love Sunil, I love Akashdeep. As one watching from the outside, I wish these big names were there in the team. That’s the emotional part, but the rational part, having been there myself, I also know the coach has to decide what’s best for the team. Not based on the emotions of people like you and me.” Rasquinha further told TimesofIndia.com.