The Olympic dreams of the Indian women's hockey team came crashing Saturday as they lost 1-3 to tournament favourites South Africa in the final of the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium here.
For World No.12 South Africa, the win was a fitting reply to the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (SASCOC), which had forced them to go through the qualification process despite their having earned a direct berth.
South Africa were always at ease right from the start and played freely while pressure got the better of World No.13 India, whose last Olympic appearance was way back at 1980 Moscow edition, where the men's team had won the last of their record eight Olympic gold medals.
While there wasn't much difference between the rankings of the two teams, South Africa were clearly the superior side. They churned out a clinical performance and changed gears cleverly to take the Indians by surprise. South Africa had also beaten India 5-2 in the group stages.
Ace-drag flicker Piete Coetzee (30th) converted a penalty corner while skipper Marsha Marescia (53rd) deflected an indirect penalty corner after Shelly Russell had given South Africa the lead as early as in the fourth minute. India pulled one back in the 57th minute through Jaspreet Kaur from a penalty corner.
For the first time in the tournament, India found themselves stifled with man-marking but South Africa soon changed tactics after taking the lead.
A defensive blunder by Ritu Rani gifted South Africa the early lead. Ritu failed to control a back-pass in the D, allowing Shelly to sneak in and the 24-year-old slotted it past India goalkeeper Yogita Bali, who was also slow off the blocks.
A goal down, India stepped on the accelerator and attacked from the left-flank through a fit-again Anuradha Devi Thokchom, who was back after missing the last two matches due to a hamstring injury. Anuradha initiated some quick runs but couldn't find much support from Rani Rampaul, Ritu Rani or Poonam Rani.
The Indians were pathetic with their finishing inside the D and Anuradha twice came close but faltered on both occasions. In the 42nd minute, Anuradha had to connect a loose shot from the centre and she had only the goalie to beat but shot into the gloves of the South African custodian Mariette Rix.
India had only themselves to blame for the loss as they allowed pressure to get the better of them. They attacked in patches but there was a lack of coordinated effort from C.R. Kumar's girls, who came close to qualifying but fell short.