Tiwari on target as India upstage Belgium to reach junior World Cup semis
- The hosts and defending champions face Germany in the last four; Argentina will take on surprise winners France in the other semifinals.
A few years back during his school summer break, Sharda Nand Tiwari was working at a departmental store in Lucknow for a meagre salary of Rs. 700. With his father in the Home Guard and the sole bread winner of the family, Tiwari did not have much of a choice if he wanted to finance his budding career in hockey. “I have an older brother as well, so all the earnings were spent on our studies. It was tough. I couldn’t even afford to buy hockey sticks,” says the 17-year-old.
Little did he know that a couple of years down the line his hockey stick would be regarded as invaluable for his national team, after scoring the lone goal that helped upstage Belgium and propel India into the semi-finals of the Junior World Cup in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday.
Tiwari’s 21st minute penalty corner strike in the quarter-final earned defending champions India a 1-0 victory over Belgium, whose seniors are the world and Olympic champions. The meeting was a repeat of the final in the 2016 edition, which India had won 2-1. Seven of the players who were in the team that won the title five years ago in Lucknow were watching from the Kalinga Stadium stands on Wednesday.
From the corner push, the ball was passed to Sanjay whose dummy nullified Belgium’s first rusher as the vice-captain switched the ball to Tiwari, who in a flash dragged the ball with full force to the top left of the goal, beyond the reach of goalkeeper Boris Feldheim.
“We have been spending a fair bit of time practicing penalty corner attack and defence as it may decide the match tomorrow for both the teams,” India chief coach Graham Reid, who is guiding the juniors in the tournament, had said on the eve of the quarter-final tie.
And it did, as that was the only penalty corner India managed to earn in the entire 60 minutes. Sanjay, who is India’s top-scorer of the tournament with eight goals, ran the full length of the pitch from the back to pass on and earn the short corner with Tiwari making it count.
India gave away three penalty corners to Belgium but goalkeeper Pawan did a brilliant job, especially in the last quarter when Belgium were going full press, to keep a clean slate despite India being down to 10-men for five minutes after defender Yashdeep Siwach got a yellow card.
Tiwari scored his fourth goal, having struck twice against Canada and once against Poland in the group phase. He is slowly realising his dream which he believes he will when he gets selected to the India senior team.
Coming from a humble background, it has been a challenging journey for Tiwari, who will turn 18 in January. Born in Lucknow, the defender believes that hockey has helped him overcome various tests and trials in life and that the sport is the only way to bring financial stability to his family.
“I didn’t have enough financial support initially as my father was the sole bread earner. But ever since I picked up hockey, my life has changed. It is everything for me,” says Tiwari.
The defender was introduced to hockey through his friends and started playing as he wasn’t too interested in studies. His skills with the stick, especially in dodging and pace impressed the scouts who selected him to play for the Sports Authority of India Academy in the Uttar Pradesh capital.
“I honed my skills at the SAI Academy and got a chance to play in the Hockey India Junior Men’s National Championship 2019 (A Division) where our team, Uttar Pradesh Hockey, won the silver medal,” says Tiwari.
His game impressed the selectors who chose him for the junior national camp. Once he was among the best in the country, Tiwari kept developing his game, improving wrist work and defensive abilities which soon helped get picked in the junior national team. The defender made his international debut at the 2019 Sultan of Johor Cup, where India won silver.
“The moment I got to know that I have made the cut, I called my father. I told him I will be playing for India. He got very emotional and at that moment I realised my dad is the reason behind it,” says Tiwari, who was also part of the Uttar Pradesh Under-21 team that won gold at the Khelo India Youth Games 2020. “I see him as my biggest inspiration. He used to stay awake in the night and also used to work in the day only because I and my brother could pursue our dreams.”
Though Covid halted the international calendar for the India colts for more than two years, when the time came for selection of the core probables, Tiwari saw his name in the list. He made his father more proud on November 11 when he was named in the 18-member squad for the junior World Cup.
Having made his mark at the junior level, that too in only his second international tournament, Tiwari’s main target is to make the cut for the senior team on the basis of his current performances. “My dream is to play for the senior team at all the major tournaments and win medals for the country. But it’s a step-by-step process,” he says.
Germany in semis
Next up for India will be six-time champions Germany in the semi-finals on Friday. Germany overcame Spain 2-2 (3-1) in a shootout earlier in the day. India will need to maintain a tight defence if they are to overcome the Germans and reach a second successive final.
In the other quarter-finals, 2005 champions Argentina overcame traditional powerhouse Netherlands 2-1 and will face surprise of the tournament France in the other semi-final. France, who defeated Malaysia 4-0 in the quarter-final, have been a revelation in this tournament, beating India 5-4 in the opener before going on to top Pool A with three wins.