The mood is sombre. No matter how much you console them, the loss will sting. From the tears of joy on a hot August afternoon in Tokyo to the tears of sorrow in Bhubaneswar on Sunday, the downfall is a difficult one to digest.
Manpreet Singh, who captained the Indian hockey team to bronze one and a half years back, was down on his knees, staring at the turf. Akashdeep Singh, who missed Tokyo and was desperate for a World Cup medal here, sat in the goal after the embarrassing loss to New Zealand in the crossovers.
Hardik Singh, who could have made the difference but for his injury, was sitting beside him quietly, unable to say anything to his senior colleague.
A loss at home, in front of 16,000 fans at the Kalinga Stadium, who were expecting a medal just like Tokyo won’t just fade away. But they still have to rise from it. And quickly.
The world No 6 outfit will face reigning Asian Games gold medallists Japan in a 9-16 position classification playoff at the new Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium in Rourkela on Thursday. If they win, India will then play the 9-12 playoff on Saturday. If they lose, they will have to suffer the ignominy of playing the 13-16 position playoffs.
The situation is a bit tricky for India. If the hosts win, there will be no acknowledgement, no appreciation for the result as it is a mere classification playoff that too for the last eight positions of the tournament. If they lose, the criticism, the questions, and the denunciation will likely escalate.
And Japan are not going to make things easy for the hosts. They are hungry. Having lost all three Pool B matches against Belgium, Germany and South Korea, the world No 18 outfit want to get off the mark and fast. India could be their chance. A team down after a disappointing defeat, Japan will come out with all guns blazing with nothing to lose.
Last year, the two teams met thrice – every time in the Asia Cup – with Japan convincingly winning the group opener 5-2 before India came out on top in the Super 4s (2-1) and the bronze medal playoff (1-0).
But the Indian team that went to the Asia Cup in Jakarta last year was a second-string squad comprising of juniors and senior players who made up the bench strength. The last time the full-strength squads of both sides faced each other was in 2021.
In the pool stages of the Tokyo Olympics, India had beaten the hosts 5-3 in July 2021. The two sides met twice at the 2021 Asian Champions Trophy in Dhaka where India hammered Japan 6-0 in the round robin but Japan fought back to defeat India 5-3 in the semi-finals.
A lot is at stake in Thursday’s match. While India’s best finish at a World Cup was in Kuala Lumpur 1975 when they won the tournament for the one and only time. But their worst was London 1986 when India finished 12th and last – only six years after winning gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
If India lose on Thursday, they will be fighting for 13-16 positions on Saturday, automatically making it their worst-ever result in the World Cup. Back in the day, the World Cup was a 12-team affair. It increased to 16 in Kuala Lumpur 2002 before returning to 12 teams in Monchengladbach in 2006. It became a 16-team tournament again in Bhubaneswar 2018 when India finished sixth after losing a closely fought quarter-final 1-2 to eventual finalists Netherlands.