London: Back in the Olympics after eight years, the Indian hockey team would look to relive the glory days when it opens its campaign against the formidable Netherlands in the 30th Games here on Monday. Special Coverage: London Olympic 2012
Eight-time Olympic gold medallists India, currently ranked 10th in world hockey, are confronted with the aggressive world number three Dutch, whose robust European tactics can be quite a handful.
London evokes fond memories as it was the city in which independent India scripted its maiden sporting success story by winning the Olympic hockey title in 1948.
Winners of the 1996 and 2000 Olympic titles, the Dutch are the only team after India to have won successive gold medals.
India won Olympic titles in a row between 1928 and 1956, but is now striving to earn their first semi-final berth in 32 years since the gold medal in the boycott-hit 1980 Olympics.
World champions Australia start as the title favourites in men’s hockey with reigning Olympic champions Germany rated as the other formidable contender.
Australia won the last major encounter between these two teams, in the 2010 World Cup final in New Delhi.
Despite losing several of their established stars in recent years, the Netherlands are still considered just a notch behind Australia and Germany.
Indian captain Bharat Chetri said his team has worked hard and was aware of the significance of the return to London for the Olympic Games.
“We want to produce a good display. We are eager to show that the London connection with Indian hockey is not just symbolic,” said Chetri, promising an exhibition of aggressive hockey.
Michael Nobbs, coach of India’s national squad, said the team was looking forward to taking on the Dutch.
“We have gone through the tough grind in the run—up to the Olympic Games, and the boys have worked hard. They are now excited about getting on to the pitch,” said Nobbs, the former Australian international who took over as India’s coach last year.
“We just can’t wait for the action to begin. The Dutch are a good side, but the Indians are keen to put their own game on display.
“We’ve not played The Netherlands for a while, and not even once since I took joined the Indian side last year, but that will not matter on Monday,” he added.
“What will matter is how well this Indian team plays, and they have the potential to match the top teams if they are able to play to their ability.”
The Dutch are currently trailing defending Olympic champions Germany and World Cup holders Australia in the rankings.
Combined with their women’s team, the Dutch have won more Olympic hockey medals than any other nation — 14 in all. The Indian men have 11 with a silver and two bronze to back their eight golds.
The Netherlands are looking to improve upon their fourth place finish at Beijing in 2008 and the bronze medal at the World Cup in 2010.
They go into the Olympic competition as the bronze medallists from the Champions Trophy in Auckland last year.
The Indians will be wary of seasoned Dutch spearhead Teun de Nooijer, a veteran of over 600 internationals, who will play in his fifth Olympic Games.
De Nooijer, winner of two gold medals in 1996 and 2000 and a silver in 2004, is one of contemporary hockey’s most outstanding players and has over 200 goals against his name in international hockey.
Nobbs said it is players of de Nooijer’s quality that can trouble his defence, but the Indians had worked hard.
“We’ve done the drills, but now need to execute them on the field,” said the Indian coach.
“The Dutch are an aggressive team, and we must learn not to give them any leeway.”
Dutch coach Paul van Ass had originally left out stars like de Nooijer and penalty corner ace Taeke Taekema from his squad in January.
Public criticism forced him to recall de Nooijer, but an injured Taekema could not make it to London.
Indian captain Chetri said the Indian players are eager to make the most of the chance to play in the Olympics.
Just two members — seasoned defender Ignace Tirkey and penalty corner ace Sandeep Singh — from the Indian team have the experience of featuring in the Olympics as they were in the Indian team that played in 2004 at Athens.
“I personally know what it meant losing that Olympic qualifier to Britain. This is a big chance to start our campaign here on a good note,” said Chetri.
Besides Netherlands, India’s other opponents in Group B are reigning Olympic champions Germany, New Zealand, South Korea and Belgium.
London: Back in the Olympics after eight years, the Indian hockey team would look to relive the glory days when it opens its campaign against the formidable Netherlands in the 30th Games here on Monday.
Special Coverage: London Olympic 2012