Indian women’s hockey team captain Savita Punia has no doubt in her mind that her side will be there at the 2024 Paris Olympics despite the huge setback of not being able to qualify for the global showpiece at the Asian Games in Hangzhou recently.
China defeated the higher-ranked India in the semifinals in Hangzhou thus crashing the country’s hopes of securing a gold medal and ensuring an automatic qualification to Paris.
Hosts China went on to defeat South Korea to win gold and qualify for Paris, while in the play-off for third place, India defeated Japan to settle for bronze.
Savita said the team’s mission was to win a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which remained unfulfilled but the girls are determined to seal a place in Paris through the qualifiers and fulfil its dream.
“We have a mission that remained unfulfilled in (2020) Tokyo. For Paris, though we could not qualify directly through the Asian Games (in Hangzhou), we will do it through the qualifiers,” said Savita during an interaction at the PTI office on Tuesday on her return from Hangzhou.
“We had no time to mull over the loss to China, and before the (bronze-medal) match against Japan, I just told the players to forget the defeat and concentrate on the third-place match. We should not return home empty-handed,” said the 33-year-old goalkeeper.
Savita added that every player will be reminded of the incomplete mission in 2020 Tokyo, where the team missed the bronze by a whisker to finish fourth.
“We will return to the camp in five days. We will talk to all the players and assure them that we can and will do it.
“In today’s hockey, one has to play well every day in every match. The team is very good and we have three months for the qualifiers (in China or Spain in January). We will work hard on our shortcomings. If we play our (brand of) hockey, we can present a tough challenge to any team,” she added.
Savita added that the team was all prepped to win gold in Hangzhou with the kind of hard work the players had put in.
“We went with very good preparation and really could have won the gold but lost to China, and the (bronze) medal was against a good defensive team like Japan. We had only one day to cry (before the match against Japan), grieve and be sad. The last two Asian Games (2014 Hangzhou and 2018 Jakarta) we had won medals and we did not want to return home empty-handed under any circumstance (from Hangzhou),” she said.
Savita revealed that the team’s Dutch head coach Janneke Schopman, who usually keeps her emotions in check, burst into tears after India defeated Japan 2-1 to clinch bronze.
“The coach knew what the team deserved. She became very emotional after the bronze because she had prepared this team for the gold. There was no need to tell anyone where the mistakes happened. Everyone knew where they went wrong. Maybe, young players could not handle the pressure of the big match,” said Savita.
The experienced goalkeeper, who won the bronze medal for the first time at the 2014 Incheon Games, said, “This was the first Asian Games for some players and a medal was very important to maintain their morale. It was very difficult but we did not want to return empty-handed under any circumstances.”
Savita added that the players had made a lot of “sacrifices” for the Asian Games medal, adding that the preparations in the lead-up to the continental Games were very good.
“The players had made a lot of sacrifices for this medal. We worked very hard on fitness. In the last year, the Nation Cup, the Commonwealth Games, the long camp in Bengaluru, everything had been very good. But we could not play our game in the semifinals.”
Experienced full-back from Manipur, Sushila Chanu, who was the hockey captain at the 2016 Rio Olympics, said, “I had never thought that one day I would play for India. There is more craze for boxing in Manipur but I chose hockey and am proud to play for the country.”
“All the seniors inspired the junior players before the play-off match in Hangzhou. We told them what it meant when we won the bronze in 2014 Incheon and how much our victory meant to the coming generations,” added the Manipur-born player.