The Indian women's hockey team has to battle it out against United States of America in two matches at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar to seal their spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For the national side to do well, one of their key midfielders, Lilima Minz will have to play her part.
A veteran of over 150 matches, the lady from Odisha made her debut in 2011. In this exclusive interview with International Business Times, India, she talks about the reason her state is so prolific in producing hockey players. She also discusses her role as a midfielder and the excitement over playing at home in the Olympic qualifiers.
Are you currently satisfied with how you and the midfield in general is playing or, do you think, against stronger teams, improvement is required?
Lilima: You can never be satisfied as a player. So, I think more improvements can be brought in. The role of the midfield is to provide support, both to the forwards and defenders. It has a big responsibility. So yes, I think I should improve more and I will do that.
What about your coach Sjoerd Marijne's view? Is he happy with the midfield's performance?
Lilima: I can't say whether he is satisfied or what he is thinking. But yes, all the mistakes that we make, he gets us to correct them. In practice also, he tells us how we should go about our work.
Since there are other good players in the Indian team from Odisha, does that help you in things like communication?
Lilima: We can't think of each other as belonging to a particular state. We are playing in the Indian team. So, we don't think like that. Everyone is communicating well with each other. We have improved in our defence as well as in attack. So, all the combinations are working well.
As a midfielder, are you expected to play aggressively or pay more attention to defending?
Lilima: It's not like that. It depends on the situation of the match. So, if we are in full press mode, we will be more attacking and would try to provide support to the strikers. When we are trying to create an outlet for the ball, then we have to work with the defence, depending on which side the opposition is attacking from.
In matches, if we are winning, we have to control the game. In such scenarios, we have to focus more on our defensive role.
Tell us about yourself. At what age did you learn about hockey and how did you make it to the national team?
Lilima: To begin with, when I was little, I had only heard about girls playing hockey. But in and around our village, hockey wasn't played. Later, when I was studying in school, trials for selection to the Rourkela Panposh Sports Hostel took place for which the coach of an important sports body Odisha had come.
Those who knew that these are the coaches and have come here for the trials went up to them. I didn't know about them so I was leaving. But the coach saw me and called me. He asked me to participate in the trials. So, I went ahead and got selected and joined the hostel.
I was in this hostel for around 5-6 years. Then, in 2011, I entered the national camp, first the junior one and then, shortly after, I was selected for the senior camp.
You said that, at school, the coaches saw you leaving and asked you to participate in the trials. How did you feel at that time, worried that it may be a botheration or happy to get an opportunity?
Lilima: I felt happy. But I didn't know that they have come here to select kids for the sports hostel. In school, when we had sports events, I used to do well in them. So, it wasn't very difficult for me when I participated in the trials.
But yes, I had never left home. When we had our district-level trials, family members were discouraging me from going. They were worried how I would go there. But when the school teacher took all the participating students and some others, it was fine. Also, when sir told me to go for the trials, I felt happy.
So, your family was hesitant when you were going to join the hostel. Once you had joined it, how was your family's support?
Lilima: My mother wasn't willing to let me go. Even when I was at home, I used to insist on going to the hostel and studying there. But I am the youngest child in my family, so my mother wouldn't leave me. Then, when I went to the hostel, it was quite tough to live away from home.
But somehow, I managed. When my mother would come to leave me at the hostel, I didn't want her to go and felt like coming back home with her. But then, I used to think, that I have to live here. So, that's how things were over that period of time.
When you started playing hockey, you were a forward. How did you transform into a midfielder?
Lilima: In my early days, we used to have the system of playing with five forwards. So, I was playing as a winger. After that, our coach said that the midfield has to go up and down constantly, and for that, players require stamina and endurance. I possessed that. That's why I was shifted to the midfield.
How has been your experience of playing under Sjoerd Marijne?
Lilima: Now that I have been in the team for a long time, I can manage on my own. Earlier, when we were juniors, we were learning from seniors. Now, we are seniors ourselves, so, we also have to carry the responsibility of the team and understand how we should play as a unit.
Odisha has become a great center for international hockey in recent times. Are you happy with the infrastructure in your state or do you feel there is scope for improvement?
Lilima: It's not just hockey. Odisha has had so many players, most of them in hockey. But earlier, there wasn't much focus on sports. Now, there is a lot of development in hockey, thanks to our CM. A lot of improvement has taken place in sports all round. There is increased focus on sports now. We also had the Hockey World Cup last year. There are a lot of tournaments getting organized, so, hockey already has good support in Odisha and more is happening.
The Olympic qualifiers are going to take place very soon. How excited are you with the prospect of playing in front of your home crowd in such important matches?
Lilima: When the men's tournaments were going on, we were asked – 'How do you feel?' and 'Don't you feel that women's events should also take place?' We have played in Delhi but it wasn't as enjoyable as the men's World Cup in Odisha. So much public support and crowd provide a unique joy in playing.
We wanted a major women's hockey event to take place there and us to be part of it. Now that situation has finally arrived. So, we are feeling happy to have got this chance.
Odisha has a great culture of hockey. Even though you said that hockey wasn't played in your village, can you tell us what is it about your state that so many players emerge from there?
Lilima: Hockey was popular in Odisha earlier as well, but not in my region. Other villages had produced hockey players but not mine. But then, I emerged and having seen me, now, there is interest in hockey. Earlier, even when the trials took place, nobody got to know about it. Now, everyone knows that there are trials, at block land then we move to the district level.
So, it's good that everyone gets the message and having seen the players, youngsters are practising in schools. So, there is a good atmosphere for hockey now. This will lead to more players emerging from the state.