Hockey - Indian team
Tokyo beckons: Indian men's hockey team line up at the Bengaluru airport on Saturday on their way to New Delhi. The Indian contingent will head off to Tokyo later in the evening. Image Credit: Twitter

Kolkata: Dhanraj Pillay, a four-time Olympian and one of the finest centre forwards of Indian hockey, has a word of advice for the men and women’s teams as they are scheduled to leave for Tokyo Olympics on Saturday.

‘‘I want to say to both men and women’s teams that don’t think about the podium finish. Go match-by-match and stick together as one unit right until the last day, the last match of the tournament,’’ the legend said.

Earlier this week, Pillay - who was part of a golden generation in the game along with the likes of Pargat Singh but failed to end the medal jinx at the Olympics in his four appearances between 1992 and 2004 - sent a personal letter to skippers Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal wishing both the teams good luck. “Since I am also in Bangalore, I would have loved to meet them in person but due to Covid-19 protocols, I did not. I sent them a letter wishing them the very best and I wanted to convey to them that they should be careful about their diet when they are in the Olympic village. I wanted to convey to them that they should enjoy the best part of their athletic life by being calm and relaxed,” he told Hockey India.

Hockey - Dhanraj Pillay
Dhanraj Pillay (left), Indian hockey legend, being honoured by late Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, then Indian President in the Nineties. Image Credit: Supplied photo

Echoing the sentiments of most of the former greats, Pillay is optimistic that the Manpreet-led squad will be able to break the 41-year jinx at the Olympics. “I am very confident they will do it this time, they have been doing well in the last five years. Fitness is their biggest asset. In those days, we didn’t have the kind of support system they have now. This team has done wonders, won hearts of millions of fans with their recent performances particularly the Champions Trophy (in 2016, 2018) and the World League Finals (2015, 2017). I know they can do it this time,” he said.

Looking back at his own experience across four Olympics between Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, Pillay said: “I think the mistake we did at every Olympic Games was that we went with the mindset of aiming for the final instead of taking it match-by-match. Though we had the best teams each time, things did not materialize for us to finish on the podium,” he said.

Emotional moment

Meanwhile, Graham Reid, head coach of the Indian men's team said on the eve of leaving their camp in Bengaluru: "The team is absolutely excited. They have all worked really hard for this moment and it is time to convert the sacrifices made over the last couple of months and years into desirable results in Tokyo. As I have always said, our aim will be to perform best hockey match-by-match. The team is mentally prepared to face the challenges on and off the field in Tokyo.''

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The Indian men's team will begin their campaign in Tokyo on July 24 when they take on New Zealand in their first Pool A match. Their second match will be against the formidable Australians on July 25, followed by match against Spain on 27th, Olympic champions Argentina on July 29 and hosts Japan on July 30.

Echoing Reid's sentiments, his women's counterpart Sjoerd Marijne said: "It was quite emotional for us when we had our last training session yesterday (Friday) in SAI, Bengaluru. This group is really special. They are very strong mentally and I believe this will be one of our assets when we take on big teams in Tokyo. We are geared up for the challenge."

The Indian women's team, who will be playing their second Olympics on the trot, will begin their campaign against the World No.1 Netherlands in their first Pool A match on July 24. In their second match, they take on Germany on July 26, followed by Great Britain on 28th and Ireland on 30th. Their last league match will be against South Africa on  July 31.