Tokyo: India’s dream of winning a gold medal in the Olympic Games men’s hockey competition after a gap of 41 years was crushed when they went down 2-5 against world champions Belgium in the semifinals here Tuesday.
The Indians, who had won their eighth gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, fought well, went 2-1 up in the first quarter but slack defending and conceding too many penalty corners did them in as Belgium fought back to not only level scores but also scored thrice in the fourth quarter to seal a place in their second successive final. Belgium had lost 4-2 to Argentina in the Rio Olympics final five years ago.
Alexander Hendrickx, one of the most feared drag-flickers in the world, scored a hat-trick to seal Belgium’s victory. Hendrickx, who leads the scoring with 14 goals now, scored two off penalty corners in the 19th and 49th minute and one off a penalty stroke (53rd min) to put the match beyond India’s reach. Loick Fanny Luypaert (2nd min) and John John Dohmen (60th min) scored a goal apiece for Belgium, while Harmanpreet Singh (7th min) and Mandeep Singh (11th) were the Indian goal scorers in the match that started at a fast pace.
Belgium will play the winner of the second semifinal between Australia and Germany. India will take on the team losing the second semifinal for the bronze medal.
Though the Indians lost the match, they were not disgraced as they matched the Belgians, who lost to Argentina in the Rio Olympics, for three of the four quarters.
The Indian attacks worked well in the first two quarters but the defence looked stretched from the start of the match — committing mistakes both in ideation and execution as the Belgians came back from behind and sealed a good victory.
The defence that did so well against Great Britain in the quarterfinals, committed basic errors in their eagerness to thwart the Belgians. Instead of tackling them outside the shooting circle, they tried to stop them inside. The Belgians played smart and, instead of going for field goals, created penalty corners to give their drag-flickers the opportunity to break India’s resistance.
India, who were on a brilliant run of four successive wins, got off to a slow start and conceded a goal early in the second minute when they earned the first penalty corner.
Loick Luypaert, Belgium’s second-choice drag-flicker lined up for an attempt as their top scorer Hendrickx — who has scored 11 goals before the semifinal — gave his team the lead as he flicked a brilliant shot into the left corner just inches away from the outstretched leg of Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh.
But the Indians got into their rhythm and started enjoying more possession, moving the ball up into the attacking third, earning their first penalty corner in the 7th minute. Harmanpreet made it 1-1 with a superb drag-flick.
The Indians continued to press forward and took the lead in the 11th minute when forward Mandeep trapped cleanly in the circle a superb cross from Amit Rohidas, made a swift turn, and planted a powerful reverse hit into the goal.
India could not sustain the pressure and Belgium started the second quarter on a positive note, earning four penalty corners in succession. They made it 2-2 when Hendrickx outthought Sreejesh with a deft last-second change of direction to flick the ball into the goal.
Though the Indians enjoyed possession in the second and third quarters, Belgium slowly took control in the fourth as they looked for penalty corners off every opportunity they got.
Hendrickx struck early in the fourth quarter after another series of penalty corners — most of them blocked either by Sreejesh or rusher Amit Rohidas. That got the Belgians going and they sealed a memorable victory.
In all India conceded 14 penalty corners of which Belgium converted three.