Having become a part of hockey folklore by nullifying the tsunami of Australian attacks to steer India into the 2020 Olympic semifinals, Savita Punia is not uncomfortable dealing with the rising expectations in India.
A year after her Tokyo heroics, the veteran goalkeeper is aware that her country will expect a medal when she leads the Indian team at the Women’s World Cup (July 1–17), which will be co-hosted by the Netherlands and Spain.
India’s third-place finish behind global giants Argentina and Netherlands in the Women’s FIH Pro League this year proved that their stunning run to the Tokyo semifinal was not a fluke.
The team have also coped remarkably well with the absence of Rani Rampal, the regular captain and a legendary striker who has been battling injury issues for almost a year.
India will be missing Rampal’s lung-busting runs at the World Cup, but Punia believes the team have what it takes to reach the podium.
During an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, the 31-year-old Punia said her players are desperate to wear the elusive medal around their necks and would treat every match like a do-or-die battle.
You have two big events now, the World Cup (July 1–17) and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games (July 28-August 8)? How are the preparations?
We have set new goals after the Olympics and we are working very hard to achieve those goals. We have played well in the FIH Pro League against very good teams, so that means our preparations have been good so far. We are ready for both tournaments.
You have been such a wonderful performer for the team for many years now. So getting this chance to captain India must be a very proud moment…
Actually to be a member of this Indian team has been a great honour for me all these years. It’s a team where each player is trying to give her best in her position. There is great unity in the camp and I am very proud of the fact that I am a member of this Indian team. And as a goalkeeper, I have my own responsibilities. And I am now the captain of the team, so it’s an incredible honour for me. If being a member of the team makes me so proud and happy, then you can imagine what it means to me and my parents to be the captain of this team. But you know, all the 18 members of the team are equally important. We have been one big family.
The team’s other senior player, Rani Rampal, will be missing again for injury issues. How well do you think the team has coped with her absence since the last Olympics?
Of course, Rani is a great player. As you know, Rani hasn’t been able to play regularly since the last Olympics. Of course, experience matters a lot and Rani is a hugely experienced player. But our coach (Janneke Schopman) has set such high standards for everyone in the team that the player who is playing in Rani’s position knows she has to perform consistently to be in the team. So whoever gets a chance tries to do her best for the team.
People have seen the results in the Olympics last year. You beat Australia to reach the semifinals in Tokyo, and missed the bronze by a whisker. Then you finished third recently in the FIH Pro League, an event where all the top teams participated. But probably what most people haven’t seen is the hard work put in by the team in the last three-four years to reach this level...
As you said, we made a breakthrough in the Olympics last year. But it was three years of hard work that translated into performance at the Olympics in Tokyo. You know we had won the 2017 Asia Cup gold and also won the silver at the 2018 Asian Games. So the process started at least four-five years ago. Of course, when we finished fourth at the Olympics, it gave us incredible motivation and confidence that yes we can play well against the top teams in the world. On the first day of our post-Olympic camp, we started with the same dedication and intensity because we were not just satisfied with the fourth place in Tokyo. We missed the medal. So we want to work even harder for the next big tournaments. That has been the demand of our coach in every training session. That’s the reason why we have managed to finish third in the FIH Pro league where the world’s best teams were playing.
The Olympic was obviously such a big stage and the team did amazingly well. Yes, you did not win the medal, but it was amazing to see the respect you earned even from the big rival teams. Now the team will be in the limelight in every big tournament, every move will be followed. So what is it like coping with these expectations?
Definitely, the expectations from the public have gone up after the Olympics. The expectations are natural because we didn’t finish fourth by chance. We played good hockey against the best hockey teams in the world to reach that stage. We improved with each match. In the Asia Cup this year, we missed the gold, but we qualified for the World Cup and did really well in the Pro League. Now everyone has expectations from us, but more importantly, we have become hungry for success now, we have become hungry for medals now. We want to keep improving. To achieve those goals, we will treat every match like a do-or-die battle.
As you said, you are now hungry for success, hungry for medals. So that will definitely be the goal at the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games….
Of course, we want medals. And this is the reason why we have been working so hard in every training session. It’s our biggest motivation, it makes us ignore all the pain when we train every day. So the medal is our main motivation. But of course, our main focus is on performance. We have to fight for those 60 minutes on the field in every match.
Did you know?
In the 2020 Olympic quarterfinals, Savita Punia made nine saves in India’s 1-0 win over world number two Australia in what was one of the greatest upsets in the history of women’s hockey
2022 World Cup
Spain, the Netherlands
Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Chile
England, New Zealand, India, China
Argentina, Spain, South Korea, Canada
Australia, Belgium, Japan, South Africa
India’s record World Cups
1976: Did not qualify
1981: Did not qualify
1986: Did not qualify
1990: Did not qualify
1994: Did not qualify
2002: Did not qualify
2014: Did not qualify
India’s improvement in recent years
2017 Asian Cup
2018 Asian Games
Fourth place (India’s first-ever Olympic semifinal appearance)
2022 Asia Cup
2021-2022 FIH Pro League
Third place behind Argentina and Netherlands (India finished ahead of Germany)
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