Tokyo 2020: Relief, euphoria and tears as Indian hockey team enters semi-finals

Updated on Aug 02, 2021 08:36 AM IST

The Indian men’s hockey team broke a four-decade long shackle to put themselves in contention for an Olympic medal on Sunday.

Players of the Indian hockey team in a huddle. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
Players of the Indian hockey team in a huddle. (Getty Images)
ByAvishek Roy

The Indian men’s hockey team broke a four-decade long shackle to put themselves in contention for an Olympic medal on Sunday.

The scenes at the Oi hockey stadium when the final hooter went off were steeped in relief, euphoria, and tears. India had crossed the quarterfinals hurdle at the Olympics with a convincing 3-1 victory against Great Britain. They play world champions Belgium in the semis on Tuesday.

For Indian hockey, this victory has a meaning far deeper than the victory on the field. Once the undefeated giants of the game - winning six Olympic titles in a row, and then two more later - Indian hockey had not seen an Olympic medal since the last of those golds in Moscow 1980. Forget medals, the team had not reached a semi-final since 1972 (in 1980, the top two teams after the group stage directly played the final). If people had given up hope of witnessing an Olympic medal in hockey from India, that desire has been rekindled, at least for a few days.

Also Read | 'PR Sreejesh is my hero, beating Belgium is not a task we can't achieve'

The reaction of the team was emotional - Harmanpreet Singh collapsed on the turf, tears streaming down his face. Mandeep Singh raised his stick like a warrior raising a sword, captain Manpreet Singh and PR Sreejesh hugged each other in a tight embrace. It was made more poignant by the fact that all of this was happening in an empty stadium.

India’s coach Graham Reid joined them in the middle and redirected their emotions. He called for a huddle and said, "this is your moment, celebrate it and start afresh. The job is yet to be done.”

That job will progress another step if they can beat Belgium on Tuesday, a team they had lost to in the quarterfinals in Rio 2016.

For Reid's men, this was also a remarkable display of grit, picking themselves up and playing at their best after being scorched by Australia 7-1 in the second group stage match. But even on that day, as they trooped out of the turf, they were not down.

“We are not out of competition. We will bounce back,” captain Manpreet had said after being swamped with questions on their worst defeat in the Olympics.

Also Read | Tokyo 2020: 'India's semi-final will feel like a gold medal match'

And they did. Emphatic wins against Spain (3-0), Argentina (3-1) and Japan (5-3) followed. The fight and resilience in the side filled with youngsters – Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, Hardik Singh – shone on the humid night today. They played fearlessly, with the intrepid Dilpreet showing the way with excellent ball control, before shooting through the goalkeeper's legs in the 7th minute. It was his second goal in Tokyo.

Gurjant added to the lead one minute into the second quarter. Britain, desperate for a comeback, scaled up its attack. In the third and quarter, India had to endure sustained pressure. As many as seven penalty corners came Britain’s way. From one, in the 45th minute, Britain pulled one back. Minutes later, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, as he has done so often already in this tournament, made a string of fine saves to protect India's lead. In the middle of this siege, captain Manpreet was sent off with a yellow card (10 minutes time out) with seven minutes remaining in the match.

Then came the moment of the match in the 57th. After his fine assist to Gurjant for India's second goal, Hardik made a dazzling solo run, covering more than half the field, dribbling past two British players. He took a hard shot at goal, but the goalkeeper made a save. Two defenders in a line could not trap the rebound and Hardik, following up, slung the ball into the corner of the goal.

In fact, if there is one connection with the 1980 Olympics gold medal winning team and the current side, it is Hardik. His aunt is married to Gurmail Singh, a member of 1980 squad

“Our job is not finished. We have come here for the gold medal. After 42 years we have reached the semi-finals but we will take a medal home,” said Hardik. “When I see my uncle (Gurmail), I feel inspired. Nobody can take that away from him. I have come here to return home with a medal.”

Captain Manpreet Singh said there is still a lot to play for. “We knew that we would come back after that loss to Australia. The morale was not down. The Australia match was in fact a wake up call for us."

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