Asian champs India aim for second successive Olympic medal in Paris
MUMBAI — After having won a medal for the first time in the Olympics in four decades, eight-time gold medallists India are getting ready for the men’s hockey competition at the Paris Olympic Games next year.
Craig Fulton’s squad will go into the men’s competition in hockey, which made its debut in the Olympics way back in 1908 in London, with hopes sky-high since the Tokyo Games where India won the bronze, as the team has maintained a position in the top-five in world rankings.
Starting from Amsterdam in 1928, the Indian men’s hockey team won the gold in six successive Olympics till 1956, before suffering their first defeat in the final against Pakistan in the 1960 edition. India last won their eighth and last gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when the team led by Vasudevan Baskaran went on to beat Spain in the final.
As hockey gets ready to figure in the Olympics for the 25th time, India will travel to the French capital with high hopes as they are under pressure to prove that their performance in Tokyo was no flash in the pan.
India, who missed only the 2008 edition in Beijing since 1928, are among six teams — hosts France, Australia, the Netherlands, Argentina and South Africa — which have clinched direct berths for the Paris Games and await six other teams that will qualify from the two FIH Olympic qualifiers to be held in January.
While the final field for the 12-team competition is yet to be finalised, India will embark on a well-thought-out build-up plan that will include matches against top teams as part of the FIH Pro League.
Ranked third in world rankings, India will open their campaign in the fifth edition of the FIH Pro League with matches against the Netherlands, Spain, Australia and Ireland as the event returns to the cluster formation with matches at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar from February 10.
The field includes defending Olympic champions Belgium, World Cup winner Germany, 1988 Olympic gold medallist Great Britain and 2016 Rio Olympics winner Argentina.
After a short break, head coach Craig Fulton will return to Europe for the Olympic Games, which will be held from July 26 to August 11.
Though the Pro League will give a final indication as to how the team has geared up for the Olympics, India will go into the Games high on confidence.
India’s fortunes will depend on top players like goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, who will probably compete in his last Olympics, drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, who was recently adjudged FIH Hockey Player of the Year thanks to some stupendous performances in 2023, Manpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh and Sumit.
India started 2023 with a disappointing ninth place finish in the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, as they narrowly failed to make it to the quarterfinals after losing in the cross-over matches.
But the team recovered from that setback to win the Asian Champions Trophy and the 2022 Asian Games, finishing undefeated in both events. India won their fourth gold medal at the Asian Games, thrashing defending champions Japan 5-1 in the final.
The Asian Games gave a good indication of the recent progress by Fulton’s team as it inflicted big defeats on arch-rivals Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Japan and China. Just before the Asian Games, India had won the title in the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai.
It will be this recovery that the team will be taking into the FIH Pro League.