The belief is back, says coach
Indian women’s hockey coach Neil Hawgood has always been straightforward in assessing his wards. “Pathetic”, “just not there”, “learning, but lacking in mental strength...” are some of the terms he had used to describe their performances in the recent past.
Inevitably though, he would always add, “One medal will change it... change the way they approach the game”.
Last week, when the India Under-21 team finished on the podium, having picked up a bronze in the Junior World Cup in Monchengladbach, Germany, Hawgood knew that moment had arrived.
“It showed,” said Hawgood. “It showed in their body language. Belief can do a lot of things, and these girls have got it now.”
This was India’s first-ever medal at the World Cup in women’s hockey, and the team, who returned from the quadrennial event on Tuesday morning, understood “what they had achieved”.
“Uptil now, we almost always returned with heads bowed and disappointment in our minds,” said young Sushila Chanu, who led the squad brilliantly. “Today, it is very different. And each one of us will remember it for a long, long time.”
India’s path to the World Cup bronze wasn’t easy. They stunned Spain 4-2 in the last-8 clash before losing to Holland 0-3 in the semi-final. The girls showed nerves of steel beating England 3-2 on penalties in the third-place playoff.
Hawgood’s decision to field goalkeeper Bigan Soy — in what was her first game of the tournament — during the penalty shootout worked.
Said Hawgood, “We regrouped after the loss to Australia, and put in place what needed to be done. The girls responded positively and it showed in the results.”
Star striker Rani Rampal stood out, and was also named the player of the tournament.
“We took it step by step, and played according to our strengths. It was important to focus on ourselves rather than worrying about our opponents’ strategies.”
What worked in Rampal’s favour was her many years of international exposure and experience. She made her international debut at the age of 14, the youngest Indian till date to do so.
“My father never wanted me to play hockey, he wanted that I should study. But today my parents are very, very proud.
“Reaching the top is easy, but sustaining it takes a lot of effort. I believe hard work and passion can take you far, and this is what we will strive to do,” said Rampal, who was also named young player of the tournament at the senior women’s World Cup in 2010.