Liberal Opinion: FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup: Surprises, goals galore as competition moves to round two

Surprises, both savory and unsavory, have been galore as  the defending champions Belgium, Australia, England  and the Netherlands made the last eight round in the FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup.

While the hosts India, Germany, Argentina, Spain, New Zealand, Malaysia, Korea and  France by virtue of finishing second and third in their respective pools would play in crossovers to decide remaining four  quarter final berths,  Japan, South Africa, Chile and Wales  have been relegated to the bottom half   for deciding 13th to 16th positions.

More than 50 percent of total goals scored so far  came in the last two days of  the round robin league matches. Interestingly, the last day saw a deluge of goals, 38 in all, including five hat tricks. The penultimate day had witnessed 29 goals, including  14-0 margin, the highest ever in a World Cup match, recorded by the Netherlands against the debutants Chile.

The goals and statistics apart, the round robin league, had some casualties. The worst came for the hosts India as it lost its mercurial midfielder and excellent playmaker Hardik Singh to a hamstring injury. He incurred this physical impairment in the high voltage match against England that had ended in a goalless draw. Hardik has been replaced by Raj Kumar Pal.

Other teams too had injury problems as  they also got  replacements.  For New Zealand  Jake Smith got substituted by  Connor Greentree. Other replacements were :

Korea : Kyubeom Kim replaced by Byunghin Jeon.

France : Stanislas Branicki replaced by Timothee Clement; and

South Africa: Senzvesihle Ngubane replaced by Luke Wynford

After losing to Malaysia in its last pool game and scoring the historic 2500th World Cup goal, Sam Lane of New Zealand commented that playing surfaces at Rourkela and Bhubaneswar were so different. “We have to make lots of adjustments to play our last game at Kalinga Stadium after playing our first two games at Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela.”

The 17-day 44-match event, played for the first time in two different cities, has already witnessed 130 goals, of which 47 have come from penalty corners and seven from penalty strokes. During the first phase 2500th goal of the World Cup was scored by Sam Lane of New Zealand. Though New Zealand lost the game to Malaysia 2-3, it earned the right to play crossovers by finishing third in its pool. Its challenger in the knockout round will be the hosts, India.

New Zealand, too, had injury problems as it also got a replacement. Jake Smith got substituted by  Connor Greentree. Other replacements have been Korea : Kyubeom Kim replaced by Byunghin Jeon; France : Stanislas Branicki replaced by Timothee Clement; and

South Africa: Senzvesihle Ngubane replaced by Luke Wynford.

Fancied teams started on expected lines winning their opening round matches with ease. India started well, winning 2-0 against Spain, while England had a comfortable win against Wales. Australia started with a lot of noise  trouncing France 8-0.

It was only later in the league round that a series of drawn games took place starting with India and England playing goalless followed by Pan American champions Argentina holding pre-tournament favorites’ Australia to an exciting 3-3 draw.

The Netherlands remained the only team to come out of the league matches unscathed as it recorded emphatic wins in all its three games. It became the first direct qualifier for the quarter finals.

There were stalemates in other pools. India and England were locked in their pool while Belgium and Germany  and Australia and Argentina  too landed in the same situations in their respective pools. It was the goal difference that gave Belgium, Australia and England direct entry to the last eight round.

Teams that ultimately finished second had to score big wins to top the table. Beaten in the process were hosts India and  Germany as they lost the goals race to their opponents England and Belgium, respectively.

The battle now moves on to the knockout round. Teams will have lots of introspections and reviews to work out their strategies for severe contests ahead.

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience of 14 years with Reuters News and 30 years with The Tribune Group, covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows.)