Antwerp, Belgium: As India enhanced its chances of qualifying for the Rio Games with a win over Japan on Saturday in the fifth-place playoff of the Hockey World League Semifinals, captain Ritu Rani expressed hope that an Olympic appearance would help lift women's hockey in our country.
India's 1-0 victory over Japan today in the play-off for the fifth spot has brought them closer to getting to ticket to the Olympics for the first time (after a gap of 36 years) since the women's team's lone appearance at Moscow in 1980.
"This is a big moment for us all, we have been toiling hard for it," said Ritu, eyes still moist with overwhelming emotions.
"Some of us have been toiling hard for years while those coming from the junior ranks have a long way to go. I hope returning to the Olympic Games will help in lifting the women's hockey in our country," she added.
While top three from each of the two World League Semifinals will get direct qualification to Rio de Janeiro, the others will have to wait for the countdown to be applied after five continental champions are decided.
The continental championships, especially in women's hockey, mostly produce champions who have made the qualifying grade from duel routes. Only no African team features among the qualifiers from the two World League Semifinals.
The fifth place in the World League Semifinals is good enough for a berth in the Olympic line-up, but the confirmation will come later.
Making her debut for India in 2006, Ritu featured in the team that won a bronze at the Doha Asian Games, but failed to repeat the performance in the 2010 Asiad.
Last year, it was under Rani's captaincy that India finished third at the Incheon Asian Games after defeating Japan 2-1 in the bronze-medal encounter.
In 1980, the Olympic Games participation was on an invitation from the International Hockey Federation, while this time the girls are expected to win their ticket.
"We are pleased to have defended the lead that Rani Rampal got us in the 13th minute," said Ritu, who dropped back from her gamemaker's position to bolster the defence when Japan laid seize on the Indian circle in the last quarter.
Goalkeeper Savita, who has been representing the country for five years now, emerged as the star as she stood between the Japanese strikers and Indian goal, taking three shots on her body and diving in both directions to block angular shots from Japanese penalty corner shooters.
"It is by far the biggest moment of my life," said Savita, adding that she never kept a count of the penalty corners that the rivals got to take.
"I was not supposed to be bothered. My reflexes today helped in diving to the right side."
Japan forced five penalty corners in the last quarter and India managed to stoutly defend their goal.
Team manager C R Kumar, who continues to be a part of the team's coaching staff while many foreign coaches came and left, said the girls today placed one foot on the flight to Rio.
"This is the best position we could have achieved after missing the semis of this tournament," he said.