'Calm' Rani leads by example again to keep Olympic dream alive

PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

Bhubaneswar -- The distance between Antwerp, Belgium and Bhubaneswar, India is about 7700 km. On Saturday, the two cities merged in the mind of Indian captain Rani Rampal for a brief while at the Kalinga Stadium, as she stood accepting her teammates' congratulations after smacking home India's lone goal in a 4-1 defeat at the hands of U.S. in their Olympic qualifier.

It was scant consolation for the match itself, with India thoroughly outplayed in a sluggish first-half performance that saw U.S. pump in four goals. However, Rani's goal gave them a 6-5 aggregate win that was enough to make the 2020 Olympics, the first time they will be playing back-to-back Games.

"It was a good move of ours, because it developed from the back. Siami [Lalremsiami] was the last person to get to the ball, and she fought for it even after losing her balance. The rebound came to me, and I had nothing in my mind," Rani said. She was reminded of a 1-0 win against Japan in a playoff for fifth place in Antwerp during the 2015 World Hockey League Semi-Final.

"All I wanted to do was stay calm and to shoot at goal. The first thing that came to my mind is that I had scored like this and we had qualified for the Olympics just like this last time. Then we just put in a lot of effort to ensure that we don't let the ball enter our circle, and it worked out."

Coach Sjoerd Marijne accepted that the first-half performance had left him frustrated - 'What is going on over here? What's happening?,' he confessed having thought to himself -- and he needed to free the team of the pressure they might have been experiencing playing at home when half time arrived.

"I didn't know where to start, because the work rate dropped," he said. "At half time I told the girls, 'It's 0-0. It starts all over, and we cannot change what happened in the first half. We can change the second half. This is your moment. If you go [out], you go with your head up. You don't go with your head down.'"

Deep Grace Ekka felt a surge of belief when she heard her captain sound the board.

"We can keep defending and then the pressure builds up until the team gets a goal. When she [Rani] scored, we got into the game a bit more," she said. "It gave us a confidence, because no matter how well you play or how hard you work, it's just a goal that gives you something to take out of a game."

India then defended with all their might, and were even a touch fortunate to be on the right side of a couple of video referrals that appeared close, including one where a penalty corner was converted to a free hit as the obstruction was deemed to be less serious than it appeared initially.

"When you have played for this long, you live for moments like this. You work day in and day out for this," Rani said. "There have been similar emotional moments for me - qualifying for the Olympics for the first time in 2015, [making the] World Cup quarterfinals in 2018 and now today, when we didn't give up even after having conceded four goals.

"I am proud of the team for having fought till the very end."

Marijne was quick to remind the team that this was just a tiny battle won in the larger scheme of things.

"I said to the girls, 'We have a dream, and the dream is to win a medal at the Olympics. And the most beautiful colour is gold.'

"This was just a step, and it was not an easy step. We played well in one half in both games, and we have do that through a whole match. But we showed we can fight, and it is not easy to get back in a match, score a goal, and then defend well.

"We have a dream, and enjoy today, but preparation starts tomorrow."