Mandeep Singh is just 26, and is about to make his Olympic debut. The Punjab striker is fast approaching the peak of his career, the finest moment of which may come in Tokyo where the Indian men’s hockey team are looking to end a 41-year wait for a medal in the sport at the Olympics.
While the best may be yet to come for Mandeep, he’s had his share of achievements in the past. He’s a world champion at junior level, and has won medals in many competitions with the senior team. Thus despite being a debutant, he will go into the Olympics as one of India’s senior players. Only four members of India’s squad for the Games have more caps than the forward.
He is also India’s second-highest goalscorer among the current lot with only drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh having more goals to his name.
“Even though it’s my first Olympics, I’m one of the experienced players so I have a lot of responsibility,” Mandeep told Scroll.in.
“I realise that this is not just about me and I will have to help other young players along the way. We have to work as a team to be successful in Tokyo,” he added.
For Mandeep though the there is more to do than mentor his juniors. He is tasked with the toughest job on the hockey field which is to score goals, an area where India haven’t been at their best recently.
“Our attack hasn’t been the strongest and the focus of our work in the last year has been on improving on that front. The coaches have really worked well with us on our first touch, finishing and creating opportunities closer to goal,” Mandeep said.
The Punjab striker’s biggest strength is his poaching ability. His movement also causes problems for the opposing defence, always keeping them engaged. With 82 goals to his name, Mandeep is a seasoned goalscorer for India, but at the Olympics, there is a need to do more.
“I have scored many goals for India, but I have missed much more chances. So the coach wants me to be more efficient in order to help the team. I have been working on it and hopefully, in Tokyo, I can deliver those improvements,” he said.
“As a team, we don’t produce enough penalty corners. We have a set of world-class drag-flickers and we need to make the most of that. The coach also wants me to play a leading role in generating those opportunities for the team in Tokyo,” Mandeep, who was awarded Hockey India Dhanraj Pillay Award for Forward of the Year in 2019, added.
The 26-year-old though isn’t setting any target for goals at the Games. For him, it’s about achieving things as a team.
“You can’t go with a number in mind for the goals. Sometimes, they just don’t come and then it becomes harder. I just have to do things that I’ve been doing in training and see what happens. It’s more important for me to ensure the team scores goals whether it’s me or someone else,” he said.
“As a team, we really want to win a medal in hockey as it’s been so long for us without one. So there is a lot of determination for us to do well collectively,” he added.
As a child, Mandeep wanted to take up cricket, but his family pushed him towards hockey. Having donned the Indian jersey for so many years and done it quite well too, there will be very few regrets.
And as he prepares to join the elite list of Indian athletes to compete at Olympics, he has more than justified the choice.
The Olympic chance though has taken much longer to arrive than expected for Mandeep. He missed out on the team for Rio despite some good performances in the build-up to it.
But for Mandeep, the past doesn’t matter and it’s all about the future, more precisely the immediate future.
“I have waited five years for this moment. All the hard work and discipline have led up to this opportunity. Now it’s me to go out there and show the world what I’m are made of,” he said.
Mandeep’s confidence ahead of the Olympics is a good sign for India and their chances. The onus now is on him to show that he can walk the talk at the greatest stage of it all.
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