Manpreet Singh’s journey from a young hockey enthusiast to the captain of the Indian men’s national team has been a hard one. Obstacles have punctuated his path, but he’s always found a way around them.
It all began when a 10-year-old Manpreet, often locked up in his room by his mother, used to sneak his way out to play hockey. It was only when he won a prize of Rs 500 in a local tournament that his family warmed up to his special talent. It was the first success for Manpreet, but also a first lesson. He learnt that he had to earn his dreams.
Rising through the ranks
The midfielder made his debut for the national team in 2012, when Indian hockey was pretty much in tatters. His first major outing in an Indian shirt was at the 2012 Olympics when the team recorded the worst performance in its history as they finished 12th (last) in the competition.
For a young player, trying to find his feet at the international level, there couldn’t have been a worse start. He was then named captain of the Indian junior team for the 2013 World Cup in New Delhi. The team failed to impress and finished tenth at the event. But Manpreet was able to digest these blows and grow stronger too.
The junior Indian team under Manpreet bounced back to win the Sultan Johor Cup in Malaysia that very year in 2013. His performances there opened the door for Manpreet to represent the senior national team again. He was part of the gold and silver medal-winning teams at the 2014 Asian Games and the 2014 Commonwealth Games respectively.
In 2016, he was back at the Olympics but India could only finish eighth. Indian hockey once again seemed on the way down. In 2017, after Sardar Singh’s retirement and PR Sreejesh’s indifferent spell as a captain, Manpreet was handed the responsibility to lead the team. Captaining a team in transition is never easy and if it involved stepping into the shoes of players like Sardara Singh, it becomes even tougher.
But like every other challenge in his life, Manpreet aced it. India reached the quarter-final of the World Cup in 2018, won the Asia Cup in 2017 and were excellent in the FIH Pro League under his captaincy.
“After Sardara, it seemed that India would struggle for leadership. But the way Manpreet has taken over the role is quite incredible,” former Indian hockey player MM Somaya told Scroll.in.
“He is quite relaxed and has a great temperament. Even as a midfielder he has been excellent. I think in his role as a captain and as a midfielder, he’s probably even surpassed Sardara. It’s been a surprise, but he has led by example,” he added.
Tokyo challenge and growing expectations
But even for Manpreet, the challenge that awaits him and his side in Tokyo, is quite a unique one. The team’s performances over the last four years have heightened expectations from the Indian faithful who remain nostalgic about India’s unparalleled record in hockey at the Olympics.
The fans who are longing for a medal in hockey for over 40 years are desperate for success in the sport that the country has come to be identified with at the Games.
However, India’s new generation of hockey stars haven’t been witness to any of those triumphs. For them, the stories of India’s glorious past have only been a stark contrast to the mediocre performances they have seen over the years by the Indian hockey team at the Olympics
India may still be the most successful hockey team in Olympic history, but the current crop of players share very little with that golden era.
If only, that glory of the distant past acts as an added burden. For this Indian hockey team in Tokyo, there will be the added pressure of expectations.
The onus of calming these nerves and making sure the team delivers their best performance is largely on captain Manpreet.
“Olympics is huge pressure and for this team who have really raised the expectations, there will be a lot of nerves in the first 2-3 matches. This is still a young team and senior players like Manpreet will play a key role in taking the pressure off the youngsters. But from the evidence we have so far of Manpreet as a captain, I think this team is in good hands,” said Somaya, who was part of the 1980 gold-medal-winning Indian hockey team.
Manpreet too echoes the same thoughts.
“I am looking forward to the added responsibilities. I want to lead from the front,” Manpreet who is Red Bull athlete, told Scroll.in.
“There are times when your teammates need your guidance so I want to help them in those times. Hockey is a team sport and we need each and every member of the team to be together as there will not be any easy games at the Olympics,” he added.
For the Indian captain, the pressure of the past isn’t a problem. He sees a way to use that to his team’s advantage.
“The fact that we have been so successful in this sport motivates us to do even better every team we step out on the field. So more than the pressure, we feel proud of that heritage,” Manpreet said.
The Indian captain’s leadership has earned him another accolade. He will be the joint flagbearer of the Indian contingent at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympics along with Mary Kom, and the first hockey player at the Olympics since Pargat Singh in 1996, his inspiration while growing up.
“I consider myself extremely lucky to get such an honourable opportunity as veterans before me like Dhanraj Pillay and Dilip Tirkey too were not presented with this opportunity,” Manpreet said.
At Tokyo, he’ll be hoping to make a bit more history. Something many greats and captains before him in the recent past couldn’t achieve – win an Olympic medal.
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