Stroke of luck: Russia's Semen Matkovskiy leaves ice for grass

Hockey India

Bhubaneswar -- Ahead of Russia's two Olympic qualifying matches against India, it is unmistakable to notice the bounce in the step of forward and ace goalscorer Semen Matkovskiy during practice.

Matkovskiy is the first choice among four possible penalty-corner (PC) specialists -- in itself an unusual choice for a striker -- for the world no. 22 team, and he also guards the posts when defending PCs. If Russia are to stand any chance of competing, let alone defeating the fifth-ranked Indians, Matkovskiy will have to chip in adequately at both sides of the pitch.

Growing up, Matkovskiy almost picked ice hockey, though not the version that you might think.

The Russian Hockey Federation is celebrating completion of 50 years in 2019, but the history of the sport is a lot more complex than that. The erstwhile Soviet Union used to organise field hockey, ice hockey and bandy (a form of ice hockey that is played with a ball rather than a puck, and with teams of 11) under the aegis of a common federation. Field hockey was never high on the pecking order -- Soviet Union made their first hockey appearance when hosting the Moscow Games in 1980. The men won bronze and qualified just once more in 1988, while the women never made the Olympics.

"I started playing when I was nine. I used to play two kinds of hockey -- ice and field, and finally I decided to play hockey on grass," says Matkovskiy, who is making his second trip to Bhubaneswar. "Bandy, unlike field hockey is not an Olympic sport, and that's why I decided to play this beautiful game."

The Russian team that has come for the qualifiers has 17 of the 18 players who had travelled to India in June for the Series Finals. In their opening game against India, they lost 10-0.

Russia picked themselves up remarkably well from there, beating Uzbekistan 12-1 the following day, with Matkovskiy scoring five in what was his 50th cap.

"It [Series Finals] was a huge tournament, and we got a lot of experience during that," says Matkovskiy, who finished as the joint top scorer for the tournament alongside Varun Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh. "We think we are stronger than last time. This time we want to show the world that the last result we got against India was not for real."

Part of that experience was winning the Russian Superliga with Dinamo Kazan -- the championship comprises six teams, with each team playing 20 matches and then proceeding to the playoffs. Matkovskiy has also been in good scoring touch as the team practised in Breda, Netherlands ahead of the qualifiers.

The strains of a season are visible with patchwork kinesio tapes along his lower back as he runs through the drills for the Russian team -- head coach Vladimir Konkin has been running full sessions for his players, even as their Indian counterparts have preferred lighter training over the past couple of days.

It will all be worth it if Matkovskiy can realise the Olympic dream he gave up on bandy for. So does he have a signature celebration for when he scores?

"I just put my hands up," he laughs, "and say thank you for the goal."