Indian Hockey World Cup team | Photo: Mathrubhumi
Rourkela: A historic bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics bringing them back among the international elite, India will seek their first podium finish in 48 years in the FIH Men's Hockey World Cup as they begin their campaign against Spain in a tricky match here on Friday.
A medal in this showpiece will strengthen the claim that the former giants of the game with eight Olympic gold have turned the corner in world hockey.
The country won a bronze in the inaugural tournament in 1971 and clinched a silver in the next edition in 1973. Ajit Pal Singh led the side to title triumph in 1975 but since then they have failed to even reach the semifinals.
From 1978 to 2014, India could not go past the group stage.
The Indian team, no doubt, would be one of the medal contenders with the talented bunch led by Harmanpreet Singh emerging as a force to reckon with. The team has earned respect from other top countries in recent times.
Currently ranked sixth in the world, India have come into the tournament after an impressive show against the world number one side Australia in an away five-match series though they lost the rubber 1-4.
Graham Reid's side matched the Australians, one of the favourites to win the World Cup, in most departments of the game, notching up their first win in six years against their formidable opponents.
In the previous edition, also held in Bhubaneswar, India had exited at the quarterfinal stage after losing to the Netherlands, the eventual runners-up, and they would be looking to reach at least the semifinals this time. India have also done well in the FIH Hockey Pro League, finishing third in the 2021-22 season. The confidence and the winning mentality is back with the team.
Since Reid took over the head coach's position in 2019, India's stature has grown. He has been able to get the best out of the players, injecting a tactical discipline to their trademark skillful, fluid playing style, making them a team that is respected and feared in equal measure.
"We focussed mainly on scenarios in our training, what if we are 0-1 down, what if we are playing with 10 men, what if they take their keeper off. Those types of scenarios which are important that we have dealt with," Reid said.
Captain and FIH Player of the Year Harmanpreet Singh, a fabulous defender and one of the best drag flickers in the game, will be key to India's success while goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, mid-field ace Manpreet Singh and Hardik Singh, and striker Mandeep Singh are all capable of bringing about game-changing moments.
Defender Amit Rohidas, who has captained the team in the past and also takes penalty corners, and forward Akashdeep Singh will be among the other India players to watch out for.
Reid said he wants to take some pressure off captain Harmanpreet, who is also a defensive bulwark.
India will hope to begin with a win, as that result can help them top Pool D for a direct quarterfinal berth and avoid playing cross-over matches (meant for second and third place teams of each of each of the four pools). Qualifying for the quarterfinals through cross-over matches could lead to facing stronger teams in the last-eight stage like defending champions Belgium.
"It's an old adage that the first game is the most important, so we are just focussing on that and then take it forward. That's how we are approaching," Reid said.
Spain have never been an easy opponents for India and the European side, ranked eighth in the world, will remain the same on Friday, though they are one of the youngest teams in the tournament.
Though without a title, Spain are always a tricky side as they can beat any team on their day. They had finished runners-up in 1971 and 1998 while taking the bronze medal in 2006.
Coached by former Argentine international Max Caldas and captained by Alvaro Iglesias, their most experienced player, the Spanish team had the upper hand in the ongoing Pro League season matches in Bhubaneswar in October-November last year.
They had won the first match 3-2 while India took the second in the penalty shootout after the two sides were locked 2-2.
It was even stevens in the two matches of the 2021-22 Pro League season in February last year. Spain had won 5-3 in the first match while India took the second match 5-4.
Historically also, there is not much difference between the two sides as India have won 13 of the 30 matches they have played against each other since 1948 (when India won 2-0 in the London Olympics). Spain have won 11 times while six matches were drawn affairs.
"Most of us (90 per cent) are playing our first World Cup. That does not mean we are going to be afraid of our opponents. We are going to be the way we are and we are ready," Alvaro said.
Talking about the Pro League matches in October-November last year, Alvaro said, "They were very good hockey matches. That means a lot and and much of Friday will be more or less the same."
The privilege to play the first international match at the brand new and 21,000 capacity Birsa Munda Stadium -- which the Odisha governmwent claimed to be the largest in the world in terms of spectator attendance -- will, however, go to England and neighbouring Wales who clash against each other in the first match of Pool D, two hours earlier than India vs Spain game.
The tournament-opener will be played at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar -- which will become the first venue to host back-to-back World Cups -- between Argentina and South Africa in Pool A.
Title contender Australia face France in another Pool A match later in the day at Kalinga Stadium.
Defending champions and another title-favourite Belgium begin their campaign on Saturday against South Korea in Pool B at the Kalinga Stadium which will host 24 matches of the tournament, including the semifinals and the final.
The remaining 20 matches will be held at the Birsa Munnda stadium.
India: Abhishek, Surender Kumar, Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Harmanpreet Singh (captain), Lalit Upadhyay, Krishan Pathak, Nilam Sanjeep Xess, PR Sreejesh, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh, Varun Kumar, Akashdeep Singh, Amit Rohidas (vice-captain), Vivek Sagar Prasad and Sukhjeet Singh.
Spain: Andreas Rafi, Alejandro Alonso, Cesar Curiel, Xavi Gispert, Borja Lacalle, Álvaro Iglesias, Ignacio Rodríguez, Enrique Gonzalez, Gerard Clapes, Andreas Rafi, Jordi Bonastre, Joaquin Menini, Mario Garin, Marc Reyne, Marc Miralles, Pepe Cunill, Marc Recasens, Pau Cunill and Marc Vizcaino.
Match Starts at 7 pm IST.