When India regained an Olympic medal after 41 years in 2021 Tokyo, it re-ignited hopes that a medal at the World Cup too was not impossible. A lot has changed since then for and with the team — in terms of personnel as well as results.
Runner-up at the 2022 Commonwealth Games sounds good until one looks at the hammering it received from Australia in the final. A third-place finish at the Asian Champions Trophy and the Asia Cup with largely young and inexperienced squads meant while the bench was tested enough, the senior players had to make do with the handful of Pro League games for match practice. The last outing for the side, a 4-1 series loss to Australia, doesn’t help.
Brand new stadium
None of it would matter when India lines up against Spain for its opening World Cup game at the brand new, humongous, still-getting-finishing touches Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium here on Friday. Like the venue, the team would be raring for a fresh start at a competition that has not been a happy hunting ground for India for more than four decades.
It won’t be an easy outing, though. Spain is one of the youngest sides in the fray but with an astute coach looking to build a team for the future. India got the better of them at the last major outing between the two sides at the Tokyo Olympics but since then, the teams have shared the honours in the last four Pro League games — all in Bhubaneswar. For a team that traditionally tends to start slow and gradually pick up momentum, India will have to fire from the beginning here.
In captain Alvaro Iglesias, Enrique Gonzalez, and Argentine import Joaquin Menini, Spain has the experience and in Max Caldas, a coach who knows India well — he was with the Dutch last time around, ending India’s campaign in the quarterfinals and reaching the final. In his limited time with Spain so far, he has shown he is not afraid to experiment with strategies.
“It is a bit difficult to tell how much influence past results have but I think it gives us confidence and we know we can compete against these teams. For most of our players it is the first World Cup and that can be a different feeling from the Pro League but we are confident of ourselves, we trust and believe what we do,” Caldas admitted.
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Hoping to build on lessons learnt
On its part, the host will be hoping to build on the lessons learnt in Australia. Every department of the team has a mix of youth and experience and the senior pros including Manpreet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Akashdeep Singh will be expected to guide the youngsters past the big-event jitters. The biggest advantage for India, of course, would be the crowd. The stadium is sold-out and the Odisha public has always been vocal in its support.
Come Friday, India would be hoping to give them enough to cheer.
On Friday: England vs. Wales (5 pm), India vs. Spain (7 pm).