When PR Sreejesh pulled off a save to deny Germany a goal from a Penalty Corner in the dying seconds of the match to confirm a bronze medal for India at the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian players broke out in celebrations. Some danced like there was no tomorrow, some were down on their knees in tears while some (read: Sreejesh) even climbed the goalposts in pure joy. For captain Manpreet Singh, it was just a release of all pent up emotions as he let out a roar on his knees.
For the Indian men’s hockey team players at the time, winning the bronze medal was the realisation of a long-held objective. However, it also meant a lot for the country and the fans who had waited 41 years for a medal in hockey at the Olympics. There were celebrations on the streets, tears in the commentary box and ecstasy on social media.
The players though were not fully aware of what they had achieved. They had barely managed to catch their breath after giving their all on the field.
“When we actually won it, there were too many emotions. Only when we received the medals I felt a sense of achievement,” captain Manpreet Singh told Scroll.in in an interaction in Mumbai on Monday.
“When I saw the flag being raised it felt really good as it was after 41 years that an Indian flag was being raised in a hockey field at the Olympics. That was quite a special feeling. I felt that we had done something for the country,” he added.
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Ever since, the celebrations have continued bit by bit, part by part through ceremonies, felicitations and extensive media coverage.
“We have received so much love and support that we are slowly understanding the magnitude of our achievement,” Manpreet said.
“During the tournament, I got a feeling that people are following hockey a lot more than any other sport at the Olympics. We haven’t received such support for hockey in a long time and that definitely rubbed off on the team. We could feel the love,” the Red Bull India athlete added.
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Ranked fifth in the world ahead of the Olympics, India were slight outsiders to finish on the podium. Recent history too wasn’t in their favour but this squad had shown pedigree. The team had several youngsters who were making their Olympic debuts but also experience of competing with the best teams around the world. The task was cut out but the belief was strong.
“Before the Olympics, we always used to speak among ourselves that we don’t want to go just to participate. We had been playing well and had also beaten top teams so we felt that we could and should finish on the podium,” Manpreet said.
“There was a belief in the team that we could do it and we carried that mindset throughout, right from the training camp in Bengaluru to the bronze medal match in Tokyo,” he added.
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India had shown steady improvement in the cycle before Tokyo 2020 and by the time the delayed Games began, expectations grew. However, the young Indian team didn’t get bogged down by it and instead seemed to thrive under the weight of it.
“We enjoy the pressure. Since childhood, we have been playing this game and it’s been a long journey for all of us to reach the Indian team playing at the Olympics. So for us, it was about pride and passion. We tried to channelise these emotions to our benefit,” the captain said.
The players arrived in Tokyo with a single-minded focus to win a medal. Having stayed away from their homes due to the Covid-19 pandemic that had forced the team to stay in a camp at the SAI campus in Bengaluru for long durations, the players had already sacrificed a lot. In Tokyo, it was about putting in the big final push.
“At the Olympics, there are a lot of distractions. Sreejesh and I had the experience so we asked the younger lot not to venture out in the village, mingle with other athletes. In terms of the diet, there are a lot of temptations as there are so many things you can eat at the village canteen,” Manpreet said.
“We didn’t have much trouble ensuring that our advice was followed. This was a disciplined group that was very aware of its objectives. There was no negativity in the team as we had a common aim. It helped us a lot as players used to motivate each other,” he added.
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The Indian team had to go through several spells of pressure and challenges in its march to the bronze medal. The defeat 1-7 against Australia was a downer but the men in blue bounced back.
And on the pitch, the team’s unity was on display.
“During the bronze medal match, I was tired and the younger players were pushing me to give a bit more. We had an atmosphere in the team where a junior player could express himself and the senior would gladly accept it. We were like a family on and off the pitch,” Manpreet said.
“And no one gave up. We were 1-3 down against Germany, a team that is very hard to score against, but we just kept at it. There was no finger-pointing even when we conceded. We just got on with it and did the job. This team is quite special in that way,” he added.
The skipper is confident his team will not rest on its laurels as the task ahead will only get harder after the Tokyo Olympics.
The Indian men’s hockey team jumped two places to third in the latest FIH world rankings and will now look to continue its winning ways at the Asian and Commonwealth Games next year.
As Manpreet put it, “The next step in our improvement will take even more effort. Our midfield needs to create more chances for our strikers, who in turn need to convert more field goal opportunities. The fitness levels will have to be even better. Our aim this time was to reach the final. Hopefully, next time we can achieve it.”