Indian hockey fans won’t forget in a hurry the last time their team played Pakistan — neither the loss nor its aftermath.
Pakistan players let emotions get the better of them after beating India 4-3 in the Champions Trophy semi-final in December 2014.
The crowd in Kalinga Stadium in Odisha capital Bhubaneswar watched aghast as Pakistani players taunted them with rude gestures including a raised middle finger.
The manner of celebrations by the victorious Pakistani team led to a few suspensions.
That evening on the sports field had a backstory. Barely two months earlier, India had beaten Pakistan in a thrilling shoot-out to win the Asian Games gold and earn a direct berth to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Come Friday, the two teams meet for the first time since that clash in Bhubaneswar: in Pool A of the Hockey World League Semifinals.
Coming into the event, the Indians are a relatively relaxed bunch and coach Paul van Ass is trying out options. The stakes, however, are much higher for Pakistan. They are yet to seal their spot in the Olympics.
India could afford not to field their best squad in the HWL semifinals, which otherwise is the last chance for some teams to qualify for the Olympics.
The top 4 sides from the 10-team tournament will proceed to the HWL Final to be played in November-December in India. The top-3 teams will qualify for the Rio Olympics.
But some teams ranked slightly lower may also get a chance if any of the countries also feature in the five places available to winners of continental tournaments.
India have won their first two outings against France (3-2) and Poland (3-0) but van Ass’ wards were far from impressive.
Pakistan, on the other hand, managed to beat Poland 2-1 before being outplayed by Australia. The Australians hammered Pakistan 6-1 after being 1-1 at half-time.
Indian captain Sardar Singh said even though their Rio Olympic berth was secured, they wanted to take this opportunity to produce some positive results ahead of the World League Finals. “We want to win against Pakistan ahead of the game against World champions Australia the next day.”
For coach van Ass, to be a part of an Indo-Pak contest, is a new experience.
“It’s going to be my first experience of an India-Pakistan hockey encounter. But during the 2010 World Cup in Delhi, I saw the excitement it causes,” the former Dutch national coach said.
The showstopper encounter between Asian Games champions India and Champions Trophy silver medallists Pakistan has raised the stakes in the diamond city of Antwerp.
For both India and Pakistan, a victory in this preliminary pool match will pave the way for a favourable quarterfinal draw.