NEW DELHI, Feb 27 (BSS/AFP) - India celebrated on Monday the national field hockey team's return to the Olympics, but their coach warned that the fight back to the top had just begun.
Once the masters of the sport with eight Olympic gold medals, India failed to qualify for the Beijing Games four years ago, missing the event for the first time since 1928.
They booked a place in the London Olympics with an 8-1 demolition of France in Sunday's final of the qualifying tournament at home in New Delhi, led by Sandeep Singh's five penalty corner goals.
The cricket-obsessed nation, deflated by Mahendra Singh Dhoni's under-performing team in Australia, finally have something to cheer about.
The hockey victory was splashed on the front pages of leading newspapers, with experts predicting a bright future in what is officially India's national sport.
Their Australian coach Michael Nobbs, however, said a lot of
hard work still remained to be done if the team was to compete
against the best in the world.
Nobbs said it might be unrealistic to expect the team to win
a medal in London. His goal was to make India world-beaters by
the 2016 Olympics.
"Miracles don't happen overnight," said Nobbs, who took over
as coach last June for a five- year period.
"Qualifying for the Olympics was very important for the team
but is only a good start. My main goal is that after five years
the team should be confident of a podium finish."
India dominated the qualifying tournament against lesser-
ranked teams, pumping in 44 goals in six matches, 16 of them
though Sandeep's penalty corners.
"This win could be the start of a new chapter," said former
captain Pargat Singh. "Now that a spot has been sealed in the
Olympics, the focus should shift on winning a medal in London."
Former Olympian Jagbir Singh said the self-belief in the
team gave him hope that India could perform well in London.
"It was heartening to see India at its attacking best in the
qualifiers," he said. "There is still time till July (when the
Olympics start) to rectify any shortcomings.
"But I am confident this team will go far."