Rani Rampal has been in the midst of it all. Four years after helping the Indian women’s hockey team into the Olympics for the first time in 36 years, the captain led from the front yet again on Saturday to salvage a heart-stopping win against USA that ensured their flights to Tokyo next year.
Thoroughly outplayed in the slow first-half where the Indians allowed USA to pump in four goals at the Kalinga Stadium in the Olympic Qualifiers, the hosts, who had won the first game 5-1 on Friday, needed an inspiring performance to bring some cheer. Up 4-0 in the first 28 minutes itself, the USA team had made it even stevens, and one more goal could potentially have spelt doom on India’s chances.
Enter Rampal. Lurking at the top of the American circle, the skipper sent one into the nets in the 49th minute as the crowd erupted into raptures. India, now, just needed to maintain their slender lead till the end of the game to officially seal their second successive Olympics participation. After 11 minutes of no goal, the Women in Blue jumped in joy as the Tokyo dream neared fulfilment.
Rampal, who became the toast of the nation as the news of their 6-5 aggregate win came pouring out, would have circled her mind back to Antwerp in 2015 when she, once again, was the star as her lone goal played a major role in helping India qualify for their first-ever Games in 36 years.
Then, in the fifth-place playoff against Japan in the Women Hockey World League semi-finals, Rampal scored a match-winner in the 13th minute as she capitalised on a rebound from the rival goalkeeper to help India win 1-0. Though the side had not yet confirmed their spot for the Rio Games immediately after that game, they were awarded a place when the countdown to allocate spots took place in August 2015.
The Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Games in Brazil after England made the finals of the EuroHockey Championships where they were facing Netherlands. With both finalists having qualified for the Olympics, India sealed the quota place courtesy their fifth-place finish in Belgium.
Remind Rampal of the role she has played in helping India fulfill their Olympic vision, the captain told ESPN.in, “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.”
Three years earlier, the side had failed to impress in the Olympics event, getting eliminated in the group stage where they finished sixth. For next year, they harbour grander plans, and a lot will depend on the efforts, maturity and the skills of Rampal, who will be out to recreate history.