Tokyo 2020: India bags bronze, first hockey medal in Olympics since 1980August 6, 2021
Goalkeeper P R Sreejesh sprinted towards the far corner of the field, slid on his knees, pumped his fists and roared at the empty stands. He jogged back, paid an emotional tribute by lying on the ground with folded hands in front of the goal mouth, somehow found his way to the top of the goal post, made funny faces and laughed hysterically.
Moments earlier, the joker of the pack had played his biggest hand.
With just seven seconds left in the playoff, Sreejesh parried away a goal-bound shot. And with that one flick of his hand, India exorcised the ghosts of 41 years of barren ignominy, ensuring a 5-4 win against Germany and a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics.
The last time India won a hockey medal at the Olympics, cricket was still the country’s number two sport, the BJP had been formed less than three months before, tensions between Iraq and Iran were beginning to simmer, the Cold War was at its peak — and the USA had defeated the USSR in a dramatic game of ice hockey that was labeled as ‘Miracle on Ice.’
That was 1980. On Thursday, the heist coach Graham Reid’s India pulled off on Thursday was no less miraculous. On an incredible morning, India went 1-3 down to Rio Olympics bronze medallists Germany, equalised, then took a 5-3 lead, and conceded another late goal before surviving a barrage of attacks until the last second to record a logic-defying win.
Sports fans will know that no one beats Germany — masters of 1-0 wins — after going down by a goal especially in an Olympic medal match. And the scenes that followed had to be seen to be believed.
Hockey sticks flung upward came cart-wheeling down; the players hugged, danced and rolled over one another; captain Manpreet Singh collapsed to the ground, shouting and slapping the turf; Simranjeet Singh, whose two goals played a decisive role, ran aimlessly on the pitch, the rare occasion on Thursday when he looked clueless; Reid, the Australian behind the team’s new psyche, jumped in the dugout with childlike joy; and in the stands, men and women sobbed.
India’s hockey team had once again captured the imagination of the country.
“I don’t have any words,” Manpreet, who stood up to German aggression all through the game, said. “All these years, when we returned from big tournaments without a medal, the disappointment was greater, the regret was greater. So this time, we were certain that we didn’t want to go back with any kind of regret, any ‘what ifs’.”
These “regrets” and “what ifs” had defined one Indian Olympics campaign after another and overshadowed the glow of the eight medals that the country desperately clung on to for four decades.
Indeed, after 25 minutes in their bronze medal playoff on Thursday, this Indian team found itself almost in the same position as other sides of the past. The Germans had bullied them into submission with their in-your-face aggression and raced to a 3-1 lead inside the opening half-hour.
It would have been tough to imagine an Indian team in the past standing up to such intimidation and fighting back. But this generation of players, toughened by the Hockey India League and a Junior World Cup win in 2016, came out hard to score four times in an enthralling display of attacking hockey. And they did that with discipline and fitness — the credit goes to strength and conditioning coach Robin Arkell — while not giving up on the old Indian flair.
One of the leaders of this comeback was Simranjeet who capped a sublime defence-splitting pass from Nilakanta Sharma with a simple flick of the wrist. It was the kind of goal that brought back sepia-tinted memories of the side led by Pargat Singh at the 1985 Champions Trophy — perhaps the last team to score five goals against Germany in a match of consequence.
In Tokyo, even when they were 5-3 up, Indians did not relax — another departure from the past. “When I went to the bench during rolling substitutions, the players reminded me to not get complacent,” Manpreet said. “I had to tell them, ‘at least saans lene do!’ (let me catch my breath!). That was the level of determination we had.”
The drama started building when Germany made it 4-5 with 12 minutes remaining and pressed on in the closing stages, sacrificing their goalkeeper for an extra forward. This was a German side that has always found ways to win the matches that seemed lost — in Rio, they scored the winning goal in the quarterfinals against New Zealand with less than a second left.
Then came that penalty corner with seven seconds left. But Sreejesh stayed calm, pushed the ball away, and let out a roar. Seconds later, the hooter rang and the celebrations began at the Oi Hockey Stadium. Soon, the beaming faces on the podium completed the story.