December 10, 2013. It was the 10th edition of the Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup and the first one held in India at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi.
India had won the title in Hobart, Australia in 2001 but had finished ninth and fourth in the two editions since. Placed in Pool C with Netherlands, South Korea and Canada, the hosts needed a win over the Koreans in their last league match to qualify for the quarterfinals.
Fourty-five minutes into the game, Gurjinder Singh had a brace to his name, followed by a Mandeep Singh goal, as the young Blues led their opponents 3-1. South Korea would come back though, You Seungju scoring a hat-trick to send the hosts crashing out.
Waited years for this day
Twenty-year old Harjeet Singh, the captain of India’s victorious 2016 Junior Hockey team, vividly recalls that day. Just 17 then, Harjeet in a conversation with Scroll recollected, “Draw ho gaya tha. Crowd se bahut baath aayi ki India har gaya, Punjab ke itne player hai. (The match ended in a draw. The crowd did not react well and started saying that India had lost and there were too many players from Punjab)“
India would go on to finish tenth, losing a playoff for the ninth and tenth spots to arch-rivals Pakistan, losing 4-2 on penalties, after drawing 1-1 in regulation time. Harjeet says that the crowd’s reaction motivated him that day.
The young midfielder had made his mind up that day, “Ek aim tha. Uss din decide kar liya tha ki hockey khelenge toh apne liye nahi, desh ke liye hockey khelna hai. Sirf participate nahi karna, khelna hai toh World Cup le aana hai. (I had an aim. I decided that I wouldn’t play hockey for myself, I would play for this country. Mere participation wouldn’t suffice, I would play to win the World Cup)“
Last Sunday, Harjeet’s dream finally came true as India defeated Belgium 2-1 in Lucknow to clinch their second Junior World Cup men’s title. In the city of Nawabs, the young Indian team were the kings and toast of the hockey world.
This image of Harjeet sleeping with the World Cup Trophy subsequently went viral on social media.
Anything but an easy ride
The Indian team did not lose any of their six games in the tournament and scored 17 goals en route to winning the title, but to assume that it was an easy ride would be a grave mistake.
The young Tigers trailed to an early goal in three of their matches, against England in the group stage, against Spain in the quarterfinals and Australia in the semifinals. While they would overwhelm England with five goals in reply to eventually win 5-3, late goals from Simranjeet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh would help them see off a Spain side boasting the Player of the Tournament Enrique Gonzalez in their ranks, 2-1.
Against Australia, the only team that they had to beat on penalties 4-2 after a two-all stalemate in regulation time, Harjeet stepped up to take and score the first penalty. “In some of those matches, we showed low energy. But then we upped the tempo. I told the team that we worked so hard for this, so we cannot let it end like this. I told them two minutes or two seconds is a long time in hockey; Positive socho, ek hi goal hai. (Think positively, it’s just a matter of a single goal)“
The victory over Germany in last month’s Four Nations Invitational tournament in Spain also helped the team’s confidence levels according to the captain. “We beat top teams there. We believed that we could defeat anybody. We would just play our game and let the other teams crumble,” says Harjeet.
A stark contrast with Indian teams of yore were the fitness levels. This Indian team didn’t let their guard down, they hassled, harried, forced their opponents into surrendering possession with lighting fast counter-pressing. “We were put through the grind by Cody Tribe (the team’s scientific advisor). We worked so hard and exerted so much during training that sometimes I thought ‘Chod do hockey, Kya faydaa?’ (Stop playing hockey, what’s the use?),“ Harjeet said, of a rigorous training regime that has seen this Indian team being described as “quick” and “fit”, two adjectives very alien to Indian hockey.
This team did not win any individual awards, nor were any individuals among the highest goalscorers. They did not need to. “We have never played as individuals. Harendra Singh (the coach) sometimes distanced himself from the team during training so that we could figure it out. We realised that if we don’t give 500% during training, then we will never be able to give 100% during matches,” Harjeet said added, “Koi shaadi aur tyohaar chod ke aaya, koi parivaar, bas ek aim samajh ke khelna tha. (People left wedding, occasions and families to play, we played with a single aim)“
Hailing from the village of Kurali in Punjab to a truck driver and a homemaker, Harjeet faced a lot of financial difficulties before he could take up hockey full time.
After his parents had to borrow money for his kit, they asked Harjeet to quit the sport and focus on studies, the youngster used to sneak out and play at the nearby Gopal Hockey Academy. Those were testing times for the youngster as he looks back, “My monthly allowance was low. I didn’t have money to buy a hockey stick, as my seniors and coaches would help me out with equipment. My brother Rajwinder Singh took up a daily wage job in Saudi Arabia to support my training. My cousin, Sohan Singh Patwari helped me out a lot as I didn’t even have the bus fare to travel to Jalandhar when I joined the Surjit Singh academy.”
Starting out as a full-back like his idol and mentor Surjit Singh, an international full-back for India, Harjeet converted to a midfielder which the youngster says wasn’t difficult, “You have to get to know how to play each position. I trained in all those positions.”
Making his junior national team debut at the Sultan Azlan Shah junior tournament in 2012, he won a cheque of Rs 1 lakh the next year at the same tournament as the best player at the meet. He was also awarded Rs 10 lakh as the Jugraj Singh Upcoming Player of the Year at Hockey India’s annual awards function earlier this year. “I don’t work, so I need financial assistance. Awards like this went a long way in easing my family’s financial burden.”
After he was made captain of the Junior national team, India won the Junior Asia Cup, defeating Pakistan twice, once in the league stage and in the finals, the skipper leading from the front scoring on both the occasions, “There is a feeling that you get when you play against them and score. It was a proud moment.”
The midfielder would also go on to make his senior debut and he was part of the Sultan Azlan Shah and Champions Trophy squads, both of which ended in a silver medal for team India; Harjeet playing alongside Manpreet Singh, a midfielder on whom Harjeet says that he has based his game.
For Harjeet and his buddies Gurjant, Harmanpreet and Mandeep, it has been one long journey together from the ages of 12 till the World Cup, “It is a special lot for me. We were in class seven when we joined together and have a lot of camaraderie. It’s tough to bring young players from everywhere and make them gel together. But we have trained together, played together for a long time.”
When reminded of Gurjant’s wonder-goal, the opener in the final against Belgium, Hardeep says that it galvanised the team, “We saw that goal and started thinking we can do this. It lifted the entire team. When he can do that, so can we.”
Finally, the twenty-year-old speaks of his love for tea. “It keeps the entire team awake and alert. I make it for the entire team and I make it well! It’s a good thing,” Harjeet exclaims. When asked if the others share his views, Harjeet laughs, “Coach se zaroor poochke dekhnaa. (Just ask the coach)“