The Hague (Netherlands): Injury-hit India will be seeking to reverse the tide of their recent encounters against Europe`s rising hockey powerhouse Belgium in the World Cup opener at the Kyocera Stadium on Friday.
Far removed from the glorious era of India`s global domination, the Sardar Singh-led team is aspiring to give a credible show in the World Cup, where India has not qualified for the semi-finals for nearly four decades since the title triumph of 1975 in Kuala Lumpur. European Cup runners-up Belgium are the new force to contend with on the hockey turf after making impressive strides during the past three years.
Starting with the Champions Challenge in Johannesburg in 2011, where they upstaged India in the last five minutes to clinch the title after conceding a two-goal lead, the Belgians have lost just one of the past four key encounters with India. The Belgians went on to post a victory over India in the 2012 Olympics Games, but their wayward shooting allowed India to hang on to a lone-goal lead in the quarter-finals of the Champions Trophy in Melbourne later that year.
In their last meeting, Belgium dashed India`s hopes of emerging winners in the World League Finals play-off for the fifth position. Tomorrow, the Indians will seek to avenge their defeat, and get off to a flying start in the World Cup. India are drawn in Group A alongside defending champions Australia, formidable Spain and Belgium, beside 2012 Olympic semi-finalists England and fast improving Malaysia.
Group B features Olympic gold medalists Germany and hosts The Netherlands` winners of two World Cup title each. Completing the lines up are Argentina, New Zealand, South Korea and South Africa.
"We`re ready for the big moment," says Indian skipper Sardar Singh, while the team`s high-performance director Roelant Oltmans stresses on the need for consistency if India are to maintain their upward spiral in the sport.
The last-place among 12 teams at the London Olympics was the most embarrassing moment for India, winners of eight Olympic gold medals in the past. "It's a tough group, and the players are aware of the challenge confronting them," says Dutchman Oltmans, who guided The Netherlands to both the men and women's World Cup titles.
Under him, the Dutch men also won the Olympic gold medal. Oltmans says India would need to put up a sound performance to improve or even emulate their eighth-place in the last World Cup. "We could produce some surprises if we can be consistent," he said. Having seen frequent changes to its coaching staff, India are now under the charge of ex-Australian striker Terry Walsh for whom "psychology has been a significant area of team preparation."
"We have introduced new tactics and focused on the development of each player," says Walsh, who expects the Indian players to prove their mettle by raising the level of their game against stronger teams.
"We have the potential, but need to go in with confidence and believe in our ability."
Only four Indian players of the current side featured in the eight-place finish at the last World Cup on New Delhi's home turf, yet the young team is confident of overcoming the injury-caused setback after strikers Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah were sidelined during a practice match and training after reaching The Hague. They were replaced by Lalit Upadhyaya and Yuvraj Walmiki.
In comparison, the Belgians are the more seasoned outfit. Although playing in their first World Cup since the 2002 event in Kuala Lumpur, Belgium's squad features 10 players who have played more than 100 internationals.
Plotting the Belgian success is also a Dutch coach, Marc Lammers, under whose charge The Netherlands women won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Belgium are facing their own fitness woes with key defender and penalty corner shooter Loick Luypaert ruled out of the tournament by injury. The strength of the Belgians was on view during two victories over World champions Australia in the World League Semi-Final in Rotterdam, where the title win secured them direct passage to the World Cup. India, on the other hand, were the last team to qualify.
A good start against Belgium could prove to be a boon for India, whose 4-1 victory in the 2010 World Cup opener against Pakistan paved the way for India's eighth-place finish ? the best in recent times. Pakistan, whose four gold medals are the most in World Cup, do not feature in the starting line-up this time, having failed to secure a berth through the qualifying events. This leaves India and Malaysia to bolster the Asian challenge behind South Korea.
Defending champions Australia are looking to clinch their third World Cup title as a present for coach Ric Charlesworth, for whom this will be the last World Cup. Charlesworth will retire from all coaching assignments after the Commonwealth Games.
Australia's title aspirations will bring them in confrontation with reigning Olympic champions Germany and hosts The Netherlands, the silver medal winners at London Olympics.
The Germans had stopped Australia's victory march in two successive World Cup finals, in 2002 and 2006, while The Netherlands won two gold medals in the space of 12 years. In the women's World Cup, defending champions Argentina are bracing for a stiff challenge after winning two of the last three editions.
The Netherlands, who have won the World Cup for women six times will not only go out seeking to avenge their last defeat in 2010, but also extend their record of titles to seven. Former champions Australia are the other leading contender.