Kolkata: A 41-year wait for a medal is a long one, by any stretch of imagination, for a country once regarded as the magicians of hockey. Manpreet Singh’s India showed the self-belief and consistency - the X-factor which their more talented line-ups often lacked in the past - to play catch-up against a formidable Germany before holding them off 5-4 and finish with a bronze medal in Tokyo Olympics on Thursday.
Going into the tournament as a world No.4 team, the team managed to withstand the rigours of the gruelling format - winning six of their eight matches in less than two weeks. Simranjeet Singh, the youngster who was initially among the stand byes, did the star turn with a double while Hardik Singh, vice-captain Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh scored the other goals while PR Sreejesh - a rock under the bar - came up with some outstanding saves in the dying seconds of a much-needed win.
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When they slumped to a 7-1 defeat to Australia after opening their campaign with a 3-2 win against New Zealand, there were no lack of doubters who felt it would be another case of flattering to deceive. However, they dusted themselves off the mat soon and went on to rustle up three wins on the trot (3-0 versus Spain, 3-1 vs Argentina, 5-3 versus Japan) and then upstaged Great Britain 3-1 in the quarter final.
Just as a flicker of hope for regaining the gold medal, which they last won in Moscow 1980 shone through, world champions Belgium humbled them 5-2 only on Tuesday - leaving them for a do-or-die bronze medal game. ‘‘When we were getting onto the bus for this game, I showed them a photo of the bronze medal and said that try to visualise it around your neck. The win is a result of lot of hard work and sacrifices that the boys have put in over last two years,’’ said Graham Reid, the Chief Coach of the team who could be credited with instilling the self-belief in the unit.
Speaking at the virtual media interaction after the play-off, the Australian revealed his mantra to lift the team after a rather demoralising defeat to Belgium in the semi-final. ‘‘I told them that the team comes first, hence don’t allow any time for sorrow for yourself. We learnt a lot from studying from the mistakes of teams of the past and the boys have responded in a fantatsic manner,’’ he said.
Harmanpreet, who hails from Punjab - India’s quintessential nursery of the sport, said he had grown up hearing stories of India’s golden days in hockey as they still hold a record of winning it eight times - but had never seen one unfolding before his eyes. A member of India’s junior world championship winning team, the soft spoken player said it was an extremely emotional moment for them - especially captain Manpreet and Sreejesh - who carried the baggage of failure with them from the past.
‘‘The fact that we have been through a lot in the last 15 months during the pandemic has brought us closer - much like a family. During our huddle at the half-time, we told ourselves that come what may, we will have to leave the ground as winners,’’ he said.
Speaking about young Simranjeet who responded to the team’s call brilliantly, Reid said in zest: ‘‘Well, I asked him to score three goals today, but he scored two goals today.’’
Will this medal bring back the fanfare for Indian hockey, officially their national game? ‘‘It’s been a long time that we had won an Olympic medal, hence people had possibly stopped expecting anything from us. Now that will change and this team has the potential to achieve more in future,’’ Rupinder Pal, one of the scorers, told the official broadcasters after the match.