I met the ex-India hockey goalkeeper Adrian D’souza in 2011 and I asked him: “If you have to select one, what would you pick – hockey World Cup or a medal at the Olympics?”
It was an easy one for him. There was no pause. No hesitation.
“Nothing like being an Olympian and there is nothing like an Olympic medal,” he answered.
As a kid who was into sports, all I ever wanted was a World Cup win for our cricket team and a gold medal at the Olympics or a World Cup for our hockey team.
That meeting with D’souza, changed my goals. Any hockey medal would be good as long as it came in the Olympics. I was one of the lucky ones who saw India winning the cricket World Cup at Wankhede. The hockey medal was now the elusive piece for me.
And we finally have it.
Growing up, I heard so many stories about the mythical dominance of Indian teams in this event – a jaw-dropping eight gold medals in men’s hockey at the Olympics. There was a famous Dhyan Chand interview where he mentioned that other teams in India were just as good as the one that they would select during the Olympics.
But all that was just folklore by the 1990s when I grew up watching the Netherlands and Germany dominating men’s hockey. For India, it was a series of sub-par performances and in big events, we could barely punch above our weight.
The Indian hockey team had a largely non-dramatic outing at Atlanta 1996 followed by a forgettable World Cup in 1998. However, it was the 2000 Sydney Olympics match against Poland that was the first big hockey heartbreak for a 90s kid.
We were just over 90 seconds away from a place in the semifinal and Tomasz Cichy scored the equalizer. The footage of Dhanraj Pillay in tears and a deflated Jude Menezes on his knees was heartbreaking. Dhanraj later remarked that Sydney Olympics could have changed Indian hockey but it was not to be.
In 2001, we won the Junior Hockey World Cup in Hobart. It was believed that this team could finally turn the tide. Jugraj Singh was touted as the next big thing in Indian Hockey. Pakistan legend Sohail Abbas himself said he could see a younger version of himself in Jugraj. But a horrible accident in 2003 all but ended his career.
A freak 7-4 victory against Pakistan in the 2003 Champions Trophy is still very dear to Indian fans but that was a one-off win. In the very same tournament, we had lost against the Netherlands after leading 3-0 with seven minutes to go – a familiar tale that would often repeat itself in those years.
Australia won their first gold medal in men’s hockey at Athens 2004 but Team India kept sliding down the barrel. And then we hit rock bottom in 2008 when the team could not qualify for the Olympics. I lost count of how many articles I read where phrases like ‘darkest day for Indian hockey’ were used.
With the birth of social media, the cricket banter between Indian and Pakistani fans often turns bitter. However, in hockey, fans from both sides would generally lament the downfall of the sub-continent giants and would celebrate if one of the teams would end up beating a European nation in a big match.
The 2010 Hockey World Cup and Commonwealth Games in India bought fresh hope. But both were, in the end, forgettable outings. The CWG final ended with Australia trouncing us 8-0.
The build-up to London 2012 was good; we beat a few European teams playing some beautiful hockey but at the main event, we crash-landed to finish last. In 2016, we were runners-up in the Champions Trophy, a month before the Olympics, but we finished 4th in the group at Rio and were eventually knocked out in the quarter-final stage.
We did improve from Rio to Tokyo in the build-up. There was a resurgence under Harendra Singh. We won the Junior Hockey World Cup and in the 2018 World Cup, we topped the group which had the eventual Champions Belgium but the quarter-final bogey struck again.
Graham Reid taking Harendra Singh’s place as coach was the perfect addition to the team. He had won the Olympic medal as a player, had coached Australia and the Netherlands, and had enough experience of turning teams into world-beaters.
In the build-up to Tokyo, he was very confident that he selected the right team to play 8 matches in 13 days of searing Tokyo heat.
The 7-1 thrashing by Australia was a big setback but it did not deflate the team. We finished second in the group. A fine win in the quarterfinal was followed by a tough loss to Belgium. It was evenly balanced for three quarters before the eventual gold medalists pulled away in the fourth.
It set up a mouth-watering clash for the bronze medal match. Looking at the defensive record of the German team in the tournament, this looked like a match that had a lot of goals in the offing.
In the game, from 3-1 down, we went 5-3 up with a quarter to go. And if there ever was a man at the helm who deserved to be in the middle of the climax of this glorious story, it was PR Sreejesh. Twenty-one years of hard work had reached a crescendo.
He had a tough fourth quarter to begin with. He could have probably stopped the fourth goal that allowed Germany to claw back to 5-4. He also conceded a penalty corner which could have resulted in a goal. Had we lost this match, it would have been a case of another heartbreaking defeat at the Olympics and he might have never got a crack at an Olympic medal again. I am just so delighted that he made the decisive save with 6 seconds to go, and reveled at that moment.
The celebrations were incredible. No one knew what to do. Sreejesh was sliding around like a footballer, and then, he climbed on top of the goal... Manpreet was banging the turf... others did not know whom to embrace first... many tears were shed.
Ex-coach Harendra Singh crying in the post-match coverage on the Sony Sports broadcast summed up the emotions of everyone associated with Indian Hockey.
I am really happy for my friends who have been to hockey stadiums across the country, watched Test matches on streams and followed matches on Livescores and Twitter accounts for years. I am also thinking of Keshav Dutt, MK Kaushik and Balbir Singh Sr. whom we lost recently. They would have loved to see this and this would have meant a lot to them.
I would always wonder as a fan, if it mattered so much to us, how much would it matter to players like Dhanraj Pillay, Dilip Tirkey, Jude Menezes and Ramandeep Singh, the many who witnessed that heartbreak in Sydney and to the class of 2001 who could not take Indian Hockey to the promised land.
It has a taken a while, but we are here.