Until 2016, the Indian women’s hockey team had qualified for the Olympic Games just once - at Moscow 1980. Thirty five years later in Belgium, the script changed.
Having lived in the shadows of the men’s hockey team for decades, the Indian women’s hockey team were rank outsiders in the 2015 World Hockey League semi-finals. But it was a great opportunity to qualify for the Rio 2016 Games and the girls grabbed it.
India didn’t exactly set the field alight during the World Hockey League semis. But in the all-important match against Japan, the Indian girls played like a team possessed.
The Indian hockey women’s team, buoyed by a goal from captain Rani Rampal, beat Japan 1-0 in the fifth-place playoff to return to the Olympic fold after 36 long years.
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Rani’s goal may have been the differentiator between India and Japan but it was young goalkeeper Savita Punia, who helped save India in Antwerp.
Savita thwarted as many as six clear chances to deny Japan victory. The current vice-captain of the Indian women’s hockey team regards the contest against Japan as the greatest game of her career to date.
Here’s how it all unfolded for India.
All to play for in Antwerp
The Indian hockey women’s team qualified for the World Hockey League Semi-finals in Antwerp in 2015.
It was a 10-team tournament, divided into two groups. The top four would win direct qualification to the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The Indian hockey women’s team was a young side then and was drawn in Pool B with New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, and Poland.
The unfancied Indian hockey team fell to Belgium and New Zealand in its first two games before winning 3-1 against Poland only to lose again to Australia in the final group game.
However, India had done enough with the Poland victory to scrape through to the quarter-finals but they drew the Netherlands, one of the favourites, in the last eight and lost 7-0.
Since only the semi-finalists would qualify for Rio, it seemed India’s dream of Olympic qualification was over. However, two of the top four in Antwerp were South Korea and Australia, both of whom had already earned their tickets to Rio 2016 by winning their continental championships.
This meant that the Indian hockey women’s team could still qualify for the Rio Games if it finished fifth or sixth at Antwerp.
In the match between the losing quarter-finalists, India beat Italy in a penalty shootout to set up a fifth-place match with Japan. The excitement was palpable in the Indian hockey team camp.
“We had felt hopeless after the group stages but then suddenly, an opportunity opened up for us to play against Italy to salvage our Olympic hopes. After we won the Italy game, I could see the change in body language in the team,” Savita Punia recalled in a chat with the Olympic Channel.
“We knew we had to give it our all against Japan, a team against whom we had played close matches in the past. We knew it had all boiled down to that match and we kept telling each other that it would be our day tomorrow.”
The match started in the best manner possible. The Indian hockey team was on the attack and with two minutes left in the first quarter, striker Vandana Katariya drove down the left flank and tested the Japanese defence.
Though it was saved by the Japanese keeper, skipper Rani was on hand to drive home the rebound and give the Indian hockey team the lead. However, India’s real test began then.
Japan were relentless in their pursuit for an equaliser and forced a slew of penalty corners. But Savita Punia stood like a wall -- throwing herself in the line of the ball and swatting away every attempt the Japanese made to score.
By conservative estimates, Savita Punia had thwarted six clear chances for Japan, and it was a seminal moment for the then 26-year-old.
“Until then, I had spent a lot of time on the bench as the substitute goalkeeper and had only just started making the playing XI. I will never forget that match because I was in the zone,” Savita said.
“My confidence was sky-high after that and I felt like I could take on any team in the world.”
The historic win also secured the Indian hockey women’s team’s first Olympic appearance in 36 years, an achievement that brought happiness back into the camp.
“I could see real smiles on the faces of everyone, which had been missing for a long time,” remembered Punia.
“At the 2014 Asian Games, we had narrowly missed out on direct qualification (India won bronze when gold would have ensured an Olympic berth), so when we finally won the spot, it was a feeling of immense satisfaction.”
The Rio 2016 campaign may not have gone according to plan – the Indian hockey women’s team ended last – but India have qualified for a second-consecutive Olympics at Tokyo.
The team is much more experienced now and has racked up solid wins in the years since Rio. This gives the Indian girls a realistic chance to finish on the podium in Tokyo.