The scenes. You will never forget the scenes. Skipper Manpreet Singh crying like a child. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh sitting on the top of the goalpost. Harmanpreet Singh hugging coach Graham Reid. The other players just laying around on the field with just big smiles plastered on their faces; smiles that were not going away anywhere.
After participating in three Olympics, two of India’s most experienced players, Manpreet and Sreejesh, finally have earned a place on the Olympic podium. They have dreamed of this moment for a long, long time and finally, it has become reality – a hockey medal after 41 years. A bronze medal after a hard-fought match.
It wasn’t easy to achieve in reality though. India started the first quarter slowly while Germany seemed to be on their game and even before Manpreet and Co could settle down, Timur Oruz put the Germans ahead in just the second minute.
The first break gave the Indian team a chance to regroup. And regroup they did. A group that looked so lost and so out of shape in terms of defensive structure, suddenly found their feet thanks to a goal from Simranjeet Singh in the 17th minute. A long ball into the striking circle, a quick turn and the tomahawk got India the goal and a foot in the door.
Germany weren’t done though. Two goals followed in the matter of minutes thanks to defensive errors. Niklas Wellen in the 24th minute and then Benedikt Furk in the 25th minute. From 1-1 to 3-1 in the blink of an eye.
And what did India do?
They came right back with two goals. Hardik Singh (27’) pounced on a rebound from a Penalty Corner to get the first one back and then Harmanpreet Singh (29’) navigated his way out of the crowd and took a PC of sublime quality to even up the scores.
Just like that, India went into half-time at 3-3.
“It has been one of the signatures of this group. Being able to ensure that we can always come back. I asked the guys before the game to bring the next level if they go down and they did that so well,” said Reid after the game.
The second half saw an even better showing. Two more goals followed — Rupinderpal Singh from a penalty stroke (31’) and then Simranjeet (34’) with his second goal of the match thanks to a wonderful move by Gurjant down the right flank where he seemed to outpace the entire German defence.
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Suddenly, India were up 5-3 and it stayed that way for a while before Lukas Windfeder made it 4-5 in the 48th minute. Several tense minutes later, thanks to some outstanding saves by Sreejesh (including one with six seconds left on the clock), India had their bronze medal.
It was a triumph of spirit and mentality.
When Reid was asked what he told his players after their defeat in the semi-final, his answer showed how much this team has grown.
“I told the guys that in 1988 (while playing for Australia), I came fourth. It was not a very good thing. We just couldn’t get up for that match but it was not very difficult for this group. We have been working on the ‘next thing’ mentality. We can’t change the result (of the semi-final) but we can change the future,” said Reid.
Some might tell you it is just a bronze, but for those who have been on the hockey journey with the Indian team, this is so much more. For years, this team has been plagued by self-doubt. They would go into the final stages of the match and invariably find a way to lose. And each time that would happen, it would break a million hearts.
But this is a different Indian team. They don’t fight with the referee. They don’t feel wronged. They focus on the task at hand. They just do what needs to be done and on their day, they can match the best in the business.
The professionalism of this outfit has heralded a new dawn for Indian hockey.
For long, the Indian team was guilty of making small mistakes that had major consequences and that affected the fans’ belief in them too. This bronze will change that.
It will bring in even more self-belief which in turn will get results and the infusion of new talent. Success breeds more success, and for all their talent, this had been the missing ingredient for Indian hockey. This is a big tournament and there are many Indians who only watch hockey at the Olympics.
That is why it is important. That is why it matters a lot. It sends the message that India are back.
As the team celebrated the win, Manpreet Singh could be heard saying, “Medal... Medal toh medal hota hai (a medal is a medal). These 50-50 moments can make such a difference.”
A difference between being on the podium and crying your hearts out elsewhere. This team believed in itself and now, the people will believe in Indian hockey too.
At the end of the day, perhaps Sreejesh’s deliriously happy words, as he sat in the goal after the win, sum it up best: “No tension, only smiles.”
Moments later, the Indian goalkeeper had climbed on the roof on the goal. He must’ve felt like he was on top of the world just as so many Indian hockey fans felt too. This was truly a bronze worth its weight in gold.