Men's FIH Hockey World Cup | India to start campaign against Spain, aim for first podium finish in 48 years

Men's FIH Hockey World Cup | India to start campaign against Spain, aim for first podium finish in 48 years

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India will compete in the FIH Men's Hockey World Cup and will look to finish on the podium for the first time in 48 years after winning a historic bronze in Tokyo 2020. A medal in this championship will support idea that eight Olympic gold medal-winning former hockey giants have changed their ways.

The nation took home a bronze medal at the first competition in 1971 and a silver medal at the next competition in 1973. The team won the championship under Ajit Pal Singh's leadership in 1975, but they haven't advanced past the quarterfinals since. India was unable to get past the group stage from 1978 to 2014.

The strong group under the leadership of Harmanpreet Singh will undoubtedly be one of the medal contenders for the Indian squad. In recent years, the squad has gained the respect of other leading nations.

India, which is now ranked sixth in the world, entered the event by putting on a strong performance against Australia, the current world champions, in a five-match away series, although dropping the last match 1-4.

In most areas of the game, Graham Reid's team was competitive with the Australians, one of the favourites to win the World Cup, and they earned their first victory against these tough opponents in six years.

India will want to go at least to the semifinals this time after falling to eventual runners-up the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the last edition, which was also hosted in Bhubaneswar.

India performed admirably in the FIH Hockey Pro League as well, placing third in the 2021–22 campaign. The team now possesses a winning attitude and sense of confidence. India's reputation has improved after Reid took over as head coach in 2019.

He has been able to bring out the best in the players by adding tactical discipline to their distinctively skilled, flowing playing style, turning them into a squad that is equally feared and respected.

"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.

India's success will be largely dependent on captain and FIH Player of the Year Harmanpreet Singh, a superb defender and one of the best drag flickers in the game, while goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, midfield superstars Manpreet Singh and Hardik Singh, striker Mandeep Singh, and midfield ace Manpreet Singh are all capable of producing game-changing moments.

Other Indian players to keep an eye on include attacker Akashdeep Singh and defender Amit Rohidas, who has previously led the squad and also handles penalty corners.

Reid claimed he wanted to relieve some of the burden off Harmanpreet, the captain and another defensive stalwart.

India will try to start out well in order to finish first in Pool D and advance directly to the quarterfinals without having to play any cross-over games (meant for second and third place teams of each of each of the four pools).

Cross-over match qualification for the quarterfinals might put a team in the last eight against a superior opponent, such as the reigning 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 has never been an easy opponent for India, and despite being one of the youngest teams in the competition, the eighth-ranked European squad will play them on Friday.

Spain is a difficult team to predict since, even without a championship, they are capable of defeating any team.

In 1971 and 1998, they had placed second, and in 2006, they had won the bronze medal.

The Spanish club, led by their most seasoned player Alvaro Iglesias and coached by former Argentine international Max Caldas, won more games during the Pro League season in Bhubaneswar in October and November of last year.

They had won the first game 3-2, while India had won the second game after a tie score of 2-2 in a penalty shootout.

In the two games of the 2021–22 Pro League season in February of last year, it was even Stevens.

India won the second match 5-4 while Spain won the first 5-3.

There is not much of a difference between the two teams historically though, since India has prevailed in 13 of the 30 games played against them since 1948. (when India won 2-0 in the London Olympics).

Spain has 11 victories, with six games ending in draws. "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.

Alvaro remarked, "They were pretty terrific hockey contests," while referring to the Pro League games played in October and November of last year.

That has significant implications, and Friday will be largely the same.

However, England and neighbouring Wales, who face off against each other in the first match of Pool D, two hours before India vs. Spain, will have the honour of playing the first international match at the brand-new, 21,000-capacity Birsa Munda Stadium, which the Odisha government claimed to be the largest in the world in terms of spectator attendance.

Argentina and South Africa will meet in Pool A's opening match at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, which will host back-to-back World Cups for the first time.

Later on in the day at Kalinga Stadium, title candidate Australia plays France in another Pool A game.

At the Kalinga Stadium, which will host 24 games of the tournament, including the semifinals and final, defending champions and title favourites Belgium open their campaign against South Korea on Saturday in Pool B.

The Birsa Munnda stadium will host the last 20 games.

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