"This has been a rebirth of hockey in India"
Since returning to India from the Tokyo Olympics with a first hockey medal in 41 years, Manpreet Singh and his band of bronze medal-winning men have been on a breathless run of functions and felicitations across the country. Every time he packs his bag for one, Manpreet makes it a point to put the medal in before anything else. "This has been with me every single moment, every single day since I got it," Manpreet said, pointing to the piece of bronze placed neatly next to his phone on the table on a visit to Mumbai.
Excerpts from an interview with the men's hockey team captain:
How has the team reacted to all the adulation you've been getting since returning to India?
We didn’t realise the magnitude of our medal there. Sure, we got many calls and messages. But when we landed in India, it was unreal. There was so much crowd at the airport that we had to be whisked away through another exit. When we reached the hotel, we were felicitated. After that, it has been one function after another, and it's been going on like that since; it's like we’re on an India tour! But it’s a good thing. We received so much support from everyone that we feel like it’s our job to go to everyone now and thank them.
Have you had the time to understand what you've been able to achieve and let it sink in?
It's actually after seeing all this love from everyone that it finally hit me: yaar, we've won a medal.
Most of this generation of the country, including you, would have only heard about India's hockey medals at the Olympics. How important was it for the people to get to see it and also for the players to experience its feeling first-hand after such a long gap?
The last hockey medal that India won was in 1980. I was born 12 years after that. I've only heard stories about those medals. I saw Balbir Singh sir's medal, but that was so old too. Now that we've finally won the medal, a lot of youngsters have seen it. They would have seen us or seen Neeraj Chopra win gold. And I'm observing while travelling everywhere that the craze among the youngsters is back again. When I went home, all the kids told me that they want to play hockey. Kids will now think, "If Manpreet has won a medal, I can work hard and win it one day too". And even parents now want their kids to take up hockey or any sport, play for India and win a medal. This has been a rebirth of hockey in India. A lot of people weren't talking about hockey in all these years. But now, even those who don't watch a lot of hockey saw our matches.
Even when I would talk to my friends' fathers, they would say, 'we used to watch a lot of hockey'. They would hardly talk about the current times. But now, everyone is talking about the bronze medal, the Germany (bronze medal) game (which India won 5-4), the final moments. The other day, someone at the airport told me, 'sir, in those last six seconds my heart was in my mouth'.
Speaking of those final moments, Indian hockey teams in the past have often come up short under pressure at the big stage. You overcame a 1-3 deficit against a team like Germany...
Let me talk about what happened before the match. We lost the semi-final (to Belgium) and were really disappointed. We wanted to be in the final, because that assures us a medal. When you're playing for bronze, it's a 50-50 chance. We had one day between the matches. It was very important to rally the boys and enter the match with a clean mind. We all got together and I said, "Look, I know our goal was to reach the final, but we still have a chance to go home with a medal. If we don't perform to our best in the next match, we will carry a lifelong regret with us—ki kaash I would have done this, kaash I would have dived here, kaash I wouldn't have missed that shot". All of us said we have sacrificed so much in the last 18 months, being away from home for 6-7 months without meeting anyone. When we were 3-1 down, not one person in the team looked like giving up. Youngsters like Vivek Sagar Prasad, Nilakanta Sharma—guys who haven't even played 50 matches—came to the bench and told me, "bhai, bas 100 per cent dena hai (we have to give our 100 per cent). We will win". The last 15 minutes, we said if we play to our potential, we will remember this day for the rest of our lives.
Is self-belief the biggest thing that separates this team from the previous two Olympic squads that you've been part of?
Self-belief and mindset. There is this Shah Rukh Khan dialogue in Om Shanti Om: agar kisi cheez ko sachhe dil se chaho, toh puri kainaat usse tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai. That was the mindset in our team. Sachhe dil se we wanted to win a medal. The kind of sacrifice the Indian team had to make during the pandemic before going to Tokyo, like staying away from families for six months, I don't think any other team had to go through that. So everyone felt that we deserve this, that we wanted it from the bottom of our hearts. That's exactly what happened—puri kainaat ne usse humse mila diya.
During the lockdown last year, the team was stuck in Bengaluru, while other countries had already started competing. Even this year, some of your tours got cancelled. Was there ever a feeling in the group that we're already behind in the race here?
When we returned from Argentina after our Pro League matches (earlier this year), the coach told us, "Look guys, we might not get another match before the Olympics. This is the time to push ourselves even more". But the competition level within our team itself was so good. Every player was giving his 100 percent in the inter-squad practice games. Every week, we played 3-4 practice matches, analysed each of them, studied the aspects where we needed to improve. Our mindset was that we are not going to get any other matches, so we will have to do our best in this itself.
Yet some negativity is bound to creep in, isn't it?
We told everyone to talk about whatever they were feeling freely and openly. We had sessions where we just spoke to each other about our families, our backgrounds, our struggles to get here. We shared our experiences of being part of the previous Olympics. We read books that highlighted the details of every Olympian from the country, the likes of Mary Kom, Abhinav Bindra—how they won a medal, what it took for them to get there.
Looking ahead, how crucial is it for the team to build on this medal now? There are some key events next year and Paris isn't too far away either...
Yeh dil maange more. Like he says in Shershaah (2021 war film)!
You seem to watch a lot of movies...
I do, but I like to pick up things from them and keep it in my mind. Like in the movie, he didn't want to stop after one attack. Like that, I don't want to stop. When I joined the Indian team in 2011, we were ranked 12th in the world. We're No. 3 at the moment. Now we want to be No. 1.
Continuity of the coaches and core group will be the key as well? Graham Reid has clicked with the team in the short time...
He has been a hockey player and an Olympic medallist himself. He believes that India has great skills and wants to utilise it. He always says, "good attacking can win matches, but good defending will win championships". Even in the attacking front, earlier, we would enter the D 25-30 times, but weren't able to get the required outcome. He told us that it's okay to go in 10 times, but it has to be effective, which results either in a shot, goal or a PC.