A pall of gloom hung over the Jaipal Singh Stadium. The captain, Savita Punia, was inconsolable. The coach, Janneke Schopman, frowned. The crowd stunned into silence. Shattered that the first chance to qualify for the Paris Olympics had slipped away after coming within touching distance. “We played so hard… But it was not our day,” Savita said, her voice quivering.
It was a sort of heavy-on-the-heart affair that’s become synonymous with the Indian men’s team. The women, too, are following suit.
In a sixty-minute emotional rollercoaster, India gave rise to the expectations of an improbable win by taking the lead against Germany, an opponent they haven’t defeated in close to a decade. Those hopes quickly faded when the Germans clawed their way back by equalising and taking the lead with less than four minutes left to play. Then, when few expected them to, India scored the equaliser so late that the match was forced into tie-breakers.
Their Olympics dreams resurrected, India took that momentum into the shootouts and when they surged to a 3-1 lead, thanks to Savita’s outstanding goalkeeping, they appeared to have had one foot in Paris. Once again, however, Germany found a way back, like they always do. In a high-pressure, winner-takes-all situation, they remained calm. India missed five penalties in a row to lose 3-4 in sudden death after the match ended in a 2-2 draw in normal time.
Savita would rue India’s luck but when they objectively look back, they’d rue their inability to seize the key moments in the fourth quarter that would have sealed the game. For, in shootouts – a thing of skill in hockey compared to a draw of lots that it is in football – Germany would always have an edge mainly because their players also compete in indoor hockey where the size of the field and situations prepare them for these circumstances. It’s not a coincidence that
their men’s team lifted the World Cup last January via sudden death.
India now have less than 20 hours to recover from this heartbreak and prepare for their last chance to qualify for the Olympics. On Friday (push back at 4.30 pm), they will take on Japan who suffered a similar agonising loss to the USA, the second team along with Germany to book the Paris berth from these qualifiers in Ranchi.
The home side will believe that if they can repeat Thursday’s performance, it’ll take something special from Japan – coached by former India goalkeeper Jude Menezes – to stop them. Despite the loss, India showed the spark and spunk that’s been missing from their game, especially against the world’s top-five sides.
This was an engrossing clash of styles. Every time India got the ball, they put their head down and sprinted forward. When Germany had possession, they were hell-bent to keep the ball and pass it calmly, going one way then the other to make steady inroads into the Indian half.
India pressed high, starting with Sangita Kumari harrying the German defenders with her relentless pressing to block the outletting – the first pass from the back to restart the game. The others behind Sangita followed her lead, closing down the passing channels and forcing the Germans to rethink their strategy.
Consequently, they weren’t able to shift the flanks and overload as they would have liked as the players got drawn into making long runs that invariably hit the Indian wall.
Deepika’s goal in the 15th minute rattled them further but as the match progressed, Germany found their rhythm. Charlotte Stapenhorst’s wonder goal – she had her back to the goalkeeper while receiving the pass and was surrounded by two Indian defenders, but performed a stunning 180-degree turn and scooped the ball into the net – had brought Germany into the match just before half-time.
Until then, it was India who were dictating the tempo. But in the second half, Germany took control. Coach Valentin Altenburg’s half-time dressing down – he accused his players of getting ‘too excited’ and ditching their style – seemed to have worked as the ball moved from stick to stick more smoothly.
Suddenly, it was India who were chasing the ball and enduring long spells without possession. They did have two golden chances to restore their lead in the final quarter – Deepika was first played one-on-one with the goalkeeper by a piercing Neha Goyal through ball and then Navneet Kaur had a shy at goal but on both occasions, Julia Sonntag stood tall.
Her counterpart Savita was doing the same in the Indian goal; keeping out the German attempts, barking instructions and ensuring the defence remained organised.
Yet, it looked like a matter of time before Germany would score. They had to wait, but Germany got their goal in the 57th minute when Stapenhorst capitalised on a defensive mistake.
At that point, it looked like game over for India but Ishika Chaudhary popped in at the right place at the right time inside the ‘D’ to score off a rebound from a penalty corner to make it 2-2 and take the never-ending encounter into shootouts.
India rode on the momentum that had swung in their favour to race ahead but the young bunch couldn’t close out the match, missing five penalties in a row. And when Lisa Nolte’s cheeky strike, nutmegging Savita, thudded into the post, India’s fate was sealed.
Schopman immediately got into a huddle with her players in the centre of the pitch and wise words were spoken, shifting the focus to the Japan match. This, she knew, was not the time to sulk.