The Indian women's hockey team leave for a tri-nation tour of Spain on Wednesday with the knowledge that they have only complicated their route to Tokyo 2020 in the choice of qualifying events. In the choice between the 'Pro League' and the shorter shootout of the 'Hockey Series final', coach Sjoerd Marijne has admitted that the decision to withdraw from the Pro League has only complicated his team's qualification prospects for the Olympics.
"If we knew now how it's working with the points, yes then it would have been better to have been in the Pro League," Marijne told ESPN. "You cannot win a lot of [ranking] points with the Series. If you are number 9 or number 8 in the Pro League, you already have more points. So I don't think that's right."
The Indian women, under captain Rani Rampal, embark on a tour of Spain where they will play six Tests against the hosts and Ireland. These matches are meant to serve as a warm-up for the Hockey Series finals in June in Hiroshima, Japan, where India must finish in the top two to proceed to the final qualification round for Tokyo 2020. India will compete against the likes of Japan, Chile, Fiji, Mexico, Russia, Poland and Uruguay from June 15 to 23.
What is the Pro League?
In 2017, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced the launch of the nine-team, home-and-away Pro League, which included both the men's and women's teams from India. However, India withdrew from the event, citing apprehensions that the women's team might not finish in the top four and might miss out on Olympic qualification.
The women's Pro League kicks off on January 26, with Argentina hosting Belgium in Cordoba, the same day that India start their tour of Spain. The top four qualifiers from the Pro League will contest the semifinals and finals, all to be held in Amstelveen, Netherlands in the last week of June. These top four teams will all make the Olympic qualifier slots, and be among the top-ranked teams for the last round of qualification -- where 14 teams will each face off against the other, with the higher-ranked team getting to host the tie.
With FIH announcing the qualification criteria for the Tokyo Olympics only recently, it has meant India will have to negotiate two rounds of qualification (Series finals and Olympic qualifiers), with a potentially more difficult second stage due to their non-participation in the Pro League.
The trouble for India will be that the nine countries in the Pro League -- Argentina, Australia, Belgium (stepping in for India), China, England, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand and USA -- will all earn ranking points for every match played during the Pro League, where they are guaranteed a minimum of 16 games each.
What next for India?
Devoid of enough quality games, India could slide down the world rankings in that period even if they finish in the top two of the Hockey Series finals, where they will feature in one of the three events in Hiroshima. So, their final qualifiers (Olympic qualifiers) could come against a higher-ranked team away from home in the latter part of the year.
"Of course, playing a lot of high-level matches is also good, but at this moment we've had a really long year," Marijne said. "We needed some time for recovery, so for us that is also fine.
"I think we had a good 2018. It was a year where we achieved some really big things, but also a year where we realised that we could have achieved more. So it's a little bit of feeling of both sides. Same with the Asian Games -- we were really close with the gold, and of course we are happy with silver, but we only came there for the gold.
"So, we were disappointed, and that says a lot about the team, that they are hungry for more. They are not satisfied with just nice performances and writing history. They still believe that they can do more than what they have done now."