The last time the Indian women's hockey team played a major event -- the Tokyo Olympics where they finished fourth after a stunning run -- Sjoerd Marijne was head coach. At the time, he'd drawn Chak De! India references and even had a cheeky Twitter exchange with Shah Rukh Khan. Now, though, as India begin their World Cup campaign from July 3, Marijne will be watching from the sidelines, having stepped down post the Olympics.
A lot has changed for the Indian team in those 11 months. Former Netherlands Olympic gold medallist Janneke Schopman is now the head coach; she had been on Marijne's team for over a year prior. India have since debuted in the FIH Pro League, finished third and gotten more experience of playing the top teams in crunch games.
For Marijne, the big change after the Olympics, which gives them a crucial advantage in the World Cup, is in the mindset. "One of the things that I see is that they have gained more confidence. When they are in tough situations they are calm and take [good] decisions and that's all because of the experience of the Olympics. Plus, their body language when they are behind is calm, which is what you see with teams that have a lot of confidence," he tells ESPN from his home in the Netherlands.
This same mindset enables India to be just as competitive without talismanic former captain Rani Rampal, who will also miss the World Cup after an injury kept her away for a year. The team has grown and the absence of a star player is not as daunting a prospect as it was once.
Marijne offers an interesting perspective on this, saying this is the natural evolution of strong teams. "The situation is the way it is and it's now time for other girls to step up and fill the space. You see these kind of moments every sport... a big star is not there anymore, how will they do it? But new people will stand up because there will be space for them. I think that is something that will also happen in this World Cup with India," Marijne says. "In these moments, the team builds their own solution, it is a natural process."
He compares it to the Indian men's hockey team when the void created by Sardar Singh was filled by the collective and they went on to win an Olympic medal after 41 years. "That's the development of a team. It's very sad for Rani but the team has to go on. They have to focus on their own process." It's not one player who has to take over, to step up, but the team that has to come together to create a solution. "There are different styles of players now. Neha [Goyal], Navneet [Kaur] and Salima [Tete] are more attacking, Nisha [Warsi] is a player whose defence is important. In the past many goals went to Rani and now others have to do it."
The onus will also be on Savita Punia, who has grown into the role of captain for the last year. But Marijne says that it will be a challenge for the calm goalkeeper. "What worked very well with the both of them is that Rani is more direct and Savita is calmer. I think it's a challenge for Savita to step up more, be more in front because that was Rani's role. As a goalkeeper it's difficult to coach everyone but it's also her responsibility. She has to coach the defenders, the defenders have to coach midfield and so on. But it's not a new role for her."
Other than the change in personnel, the tactical identity of the Indian team remains the more or less the same from the Olympics to the World Cup. If anything, they seem to have become more attacking, with goals coming from more quarters.
"Janneke went on with the system we played from what I can see. But the more you play, the more you get confident, the more you find solutions. For instance, you have to find solutions to break your press, so you have to adjust every time and they are doing better and better at this. It's really nice to see how Janneke goes on with the process. We always like play give and go hockey. You saw that at the Olympics already but Janneke has put a lot of effort to make the next step on this."
In this aspect, the FIH Pro League games have been crucial. India played 14 games, the top teams and beat Argentina - eventual champions and the team they lost to in the Olympics semifinal. It was crucial game time for a team that got the chance to play the league only after Australia and New Zealand withdrew due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. He had called for more matches after the Olympics and says that this competition is what the team needed after Tokyo.
Even as a neutral, Marijne is positive about India's chances. The root of this belief is, of course, the Tokyo heroics. "They smelled the victory, were close to it, they were hungry for the next step and that is important. Now they believe they can go for the medals. Before it was just about participating."
He refrains from pointing out any areas of improvement with a laugh, not wanting to be the "critical ex-coach" but says he has full faith Schopman; a person who, he says, builds caring, one-on-one relationship with players but is very direct too, which is "good in Indian culture, because the girls need that."
The World Cup will not be easy, says Marijne and he identifies reaching the quarters as the first goal. He believes Netherlands, Argentina, and Belgium are the teams to watch out for, but with Germany playing different teams in the league and Australia not playing... it makes for an intriguing tournament. But he believes India is primed for a good run. "If you saw the last two matches against Argentina, the team is really ready for this World Cup."