Amit Rohidas effortlessly scored a goal, nutmegged players and kept the Spanish attackers at bay. The India vice-captain could do almost everything that was asked of him on a night when the team produced a near-perfect defensive performance. Well, almost.
He was asked who all from his family were in the stands to watch India’s opening match of the World Cup. “Mom and dad,” he began. “Brother, elder sister,” he continued. “Sister-in-law, and an uncle and badi maa.” Smiles. “A couple of neighbours, a few friends…” Paused to think. And gave up. “Who all should I name?” Laughs.
Rohidas could’ve named each one of the 20,000 people inside the Birsa Munda Stadium.
Son of the Rourkela soil, Rohidas grew up playing less than 3km from the Birsa Munda Stadium, at the serene Panposh hockey academy that overlooks the confluence of three rivers – Shankh, Koel and Sarasvati. On the morning of India’s opening World Cup match, one of Rohidas’s childhood coaches, Lazarus Barla, joked it’s this setting that produces calm minds. In the evening, the former India international’s protege proved him right.
In the 12th minute, Harmanpreet Singh’s drag-flick was blocked by Spain’s first-rusher even before it took proper flight. It was fate – or to his credit, Rohidas’s sense of positioning – that the rebound fell near the India vice-captain and as that happened, the crowd instinctively got on its feet, in anticipation.
Amidst the chaos inside the Spanish ‘D’ with the defenders crowding him, and deafening noise emanating from the stands, Rohidas kept his cool and unleashed a shot so powerful that it went past Spain’s goalkeeper Adrian Rafi even before he could react and almost tore apart the net. Such was the force behind the shot that, even though they were good 20-something feet away and had three layers of protection in front of them, the bunch of fans crammed right behind Spain’s goal reflexively flinched.
This is what the 20,000-plus spectators from Rourkela, Sundergarh and other neighbouring districts had come to see – the local boy scoring a goal and conjuring a performance worthy of him being chosen the player of the match in front of his own people on the day his town hosted its first-ever World Cup match.
The India defender’s record-setting goal – it was the country’s 200th strike at the World Cups – settled the team’s nerves and put them on course for an impressive 2-0 win in their opening match of Pool D.
Before they left for Odisha, when they were applying the finishing touches to their preparations in Bangalore, a couple of Indian players had mentioned how crucial it is for the team’s collective psyche to score the first goal in the match. “It gives us wings,” a forward said. “On the flip side, if we concede, we tend to go flat.”
Impressive defensive work-rate
And although the focus, at least early on, was to get on the scoreboard, it was India’s defensive work-rate that stood out. For a team that’s conceded close to 100 goals in the last calendar year, this was a rare clean sheet. And that, for India, will be the biggest take-away.
Rohidas was undoubtedly India’s hero on the night. But he wasn’t the only one. In the goal, Krishan Pathak once again proved why he is now considered to be on par with PR Sreejesh, who has been the number 1 goalkeeper for close to a decade.
As is coach Graham Reid’s strategy to give both goalies enough playing time, he kept swapping Sreejesh and Pathak during each quarter. Sreejesh was between the posts in the first and third periods while Pathak was in the second and fourth. And Spain, a team with a reputation for making comebacks, looked potent and threatened India’s goal when the young goalie was on the pitch – in the second quarter, they snatched momentum from India to claw their way back into the game while in the final 15 minutes, the Max Caldas-coached side went all out in their bid to salvage at least a draw.
On all occasions, they were denied by a defiant Pathak, who pulled off three crucial saves. It was the tireless efforts of the defenders and midfielders in front of him – who moved in complete sync – that ensured there were only three clear-cut chances for Spain in this match. Especially when India played with one man less in the final quarter for 10 out of the 15 minutes.
It was a harsh yellow card for Abhishek, who goes just by the first name, but it put India under immense pressure in the closing stages of the match. Reid, aware of his team’s poor disciplinary record, had practised for this situation for months at the camp in Bangalore and also in the days leading up to their World Cup opener in Rourkela. “At some point, we knew we would have that (scenario),” he said after the match.
India defended their zones masterfully, with players throwing their bodies on the line, quite literally as Surender Kumar showed late in the second quarter, when a Spanish forward found himself in acres of space on the left flank and played a dangerous cross across the face of the goal but the Indian defender threw himself forward and deflected it out of play.
The assured defensive base gave India the confidence to attack fearlessly, as Hardik Singh showed with his weaving run down the left flank, skipping past defenders to cross the ball in the direction of Lalit Upadhyay. However, when Spain’s Pau Cunill tried to intercept it, the ball deflected off his stick into his own net.
The goal doubled India’s advantage. And on a night when the defence showed cohesiveness that’s been missing since the Tokyo Olympics, with the local man orchestrating play from the back in front of his own people, it was always a bridge too far for a young Spanish side.