The Indian women's hockey team walked down the heartbreak road at the National Stadium on Saturday night. Their dreams of making it to the Olympics after a gap of 32 years were dashed when the physically stronger South Africans won the Olympics qualifier final, a pulsating contest, 3-1.
The African champions, who had already qualified for London Games but were asked by their national Olympic association to prove they belonged to the big stage, played with a lot of passion and drive to achieve their goal.
India, who lost to South Africa 2-5 in the league robin match, were more skilful but lacked the finishing power. Their lone goal came from Jaspreet Kaur (57th minute) but by then the damage had been done.
Just four minutes in the game, South Africa took the lead when Shelley Russell netted the ball after dodging past Ritu Rani and birthday girl Sushila Chanu. India, too, had their early chance, in the 10th minute, but squandered it as Chanu failed to cleanly stop the penalty corner push.
The experienced South Africans toyed with the girls in blue in the first half, winning penalty corners almost at will. The visitors were awarded as many as three PCs in a span of six minutes and veteran Pietie Coetzee (30th minute) made the third one count, extending the lead to 2-0.
India continued to launch attacks from the left with Vandana Karatia, Anuradha Devi, Ritu and Jasjeet making continuous inroads, but failed to breach the strong African defence.
The hosts began the second half with more aggression and purpose. They went all out and entered the circle on at least five occasions but lost possession inside the D. Indian skipper Asunta Lakra had a brilliant game and together with Jasjeet set up the forwards well but the South African defenders and the their alert goalkeeper kept the Indians at bay.
Even as India kept attacking in the hope of reducing the gap, South Africa sealed the issue when their captain Marsha Marescia converted a penalty corner in the 53rd minute.
"It was difficult to come back from 0-2. We conceded some soft goals. They deserved to win today," Indian coach C R Kumar said later.
"We are going to London. The feeling is yet to sink in. Our performance did the talking. We worked hard and played as a team," South African captain Marsha Marescia said. "Our defence was very strong, the credit goes to our coaching staff," she added.
Italy finished third in the tournament winning the match against Ukraine 2-1. Alessia Doriana was the leading goal scorer of the tournament. Canada finished fifth beating lowest-ranked team Poland 3-0.