Indian men’s hockey team captain Manpreet Singh talks about overcoming Covid, months ahead of the Games, coming together as a team, the heart-stopping final six seconds against Germany in the bronze medal match, and writing a new chapter of history for the sport’s most successful Olympic nation. The session was moderated by Special Correspondent Nitin Sharma.
Nitin Sharma: How was the reception on arrival?
Outstanding. All the Tokyo medallists were in one flight and we didn’t have space to walk because of the number of people wanting our photos.
Nitin Sharma: How important was this medal for your mother and for the memory of your father?
Personally, it was very important to me as it was my father’s dream that I win an Olympic medal. When we won the bronze, I tried to call my mother but she was crying because she missed dad and then I started crying as well. All his dreams came true but, on the day, where I received so much love and support after winning the medal, he wasn’t here to see all of this. My mother told me he’d have been proud of me.
Mihir Vasavda: How was that night in Tokyo? I heard everyone had come to your room and celebrated late into the night?
The night we won the medal, we were busy taking phone calls and messages and it got very late talking to everyone. I slept with my medal and so did others. The next day we sat and talked about how happy we felt and how much our families had struggled to watch us win this medal.
Mihir Vasavda: You scored five goals against a team like Germany…
Our hearts had stopped in the last six seconds. When they got the penalty corner, all we cared about was to stop a goal from happening. There were just six seconds left on the clock. We had a quick huddle and then rushed out for the penalty corner. We rushed in such a way that the drag flick wouldn’t come onto the left side. When we defend a penalty corner, we try to make sure that the shot is not hit on the left side so that the goalkeeper has the entire right side covered and has an opportunity to make a stop. And that is exactly what happened as they drag flicked the ball and Sreejesh saved the shot.
Nitin Sharma: What was going on in your mind, and even in your teammates’ minds, in that winning moment?
Everyone started crying. Our coach started crying. Sreejesh got on top of the goal.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Who brought Sreejesh down from the goalposts?
He himself didn’t want to come down. I asked him why and he said that since he’s been playing hockey, he’s spent all his time on that pole. It has become his best friend. In times of sadness or happiness, the pole has remained with him.
Shahid Judge: None of the current team was even born when India last won a hockey medal at the Olympics. When you finally got the medal, was it the same as you had visualised?
True. I don’t think even Sreejesh was born. When we wore our medals at the podium, I was standing next to Hardik and we saw the three flags go up and I said to him, ‘41 years have passed and our flag is finally going up now. We can’t stop now. Our next target has to be that the flag is raised in the centre and should be the topmost.’
Nitin Sharma: Past Indian teams have faced pressure of not winning a medal since 1980..
Actually, it isn’t pressure. We have such a rich history of having won eight gold medals. We feel proud to play that sport.
This time we had decided that no matter which team we come up against, we will not underestimate them. This is the Olympics and anything can happen at the Olympics. This time, South Africa defeated Germany. Whatever team comes to the Olympics gives its 100 percent. So before leaving for Tokyo, all players were going with a good mindset of high confidence because we had beaten some really good teams last year: Holland, Australia, Belgium. And Argentina right before the Olympics. So the confidence was sky high.
Sandeep Dwivedi: You were trailing Germany 3-1, and the familiar fear of losing a medal in dying moments might’ve struck. But you recovered and could pull off this comeback in a crucial match.
We went in not just to participate but to win. These last 15 months have been very difficult. We were in Bangalore when the lockdown was announced. And couldn’t meet anyone, or go out. It was just us going to the ground, to our rooms or to the dining hall. So that was the thinking that we have struggled so much, worked so hard, stayed away from family for so long, we should keep this in mind that we have to win the medal.
When we lost the semi-final to Belgium, everyone was disappointed. We had one day rest day so I told the players, ‘Look, we still have one chance to take the bronze home. If we go home empty handed, then we’ll rue this for the rest of our lives’. Even when we were 3-1 down, to be honest, no player was bogged down.
Mihir Vasavda: The team finished last at London 2012, and you would’ve noticed the reception those medallists got. How will you compare that experience with this one?
It was very difficult then because we had finished 12th despite being a good team. But we couldn’t win even one match… That still hurts. Even now it irks me that we played so badly then.
I was a junior then, but when we saw all the medallists, we saw the reception they got. And it was swirling in my mind that even if we didn’t do well now, we would next time. We improved a lot after that. And I personally focussed on improving my own game to play better so I could contribute more to the team.
Sandeep Singh: Is there still a fitness and technical gap between Australia, Belgium and rest of the world? Or was it an off day for India (against Australia)?
The 7-1 margin was disappointing. But when we analysed the match and checked the data, we realised that it was Australia’s lucky day. Everything they threw at us, even a push towards goal, was going in. But not for us. Data on circle penetrations pointed to a 3-2, 2-2 kind of scores. So we decided to have the mindset to not lose any other match, to put in our 100 per cent every time.
Sriram Veera: Former coach Roelant Oltmans had said that you’re a sure-shot hockey star in the making, but you get too excited, too emotional, often fighting with referees. As captain, what goes in the mind with all that emotion and excitement?
I don’t like losing. I always have the fighting spirit in my mind. In practice also I have the tendency to fight for everything and give my 100 per cent. I don’t want to have this feeling after the match that, “yaar, main aur accha kar sakta tha.”
The yellow card against Great Britain was so difficult for me to be sitting out. There was around five minutes left and the scores were close. My heartbeat was going crazy.
While I was sitting out all I was doing was like, “come on, Hardik! Run for me. Run for me, guys! Do your best, don’t give up. Just five minutes left!”
Yes, it’s difficult to sit out, but (laughing) sometimes you get the card because of wrong decision (from the referee). It’s not always my fault.
Sriram Veera: But you seem to have a bad record with cards?
This Olympics though it’s been much better, I’ve been carded just twice. One green, one yellow. I’d say it was 80 per cent not my fault, but I still felt bad because it was a difficult time and I shouldn’t have been carded. It causes a whole lot more running because when opponents have 11 players.
Sriram Veera: Why did your teammates call you ‘Korean?’
It’s a funny story. I’m not that tall even now, I’m just 5’7”, but when I was younger, my eyes were a bit small. And I was very quick. So people thought my speed was just like the Korean players, so henceforth I was to be called that. It started when I was playing in my village, then later at the academy. Then when I was on the national team.
(In the national team) initially people used to call me Manpreet only. But later on some people from my village and the academy joined (the national camp) and they said ‘arre iska naam toh ‘Korean’ hai, woh he bulaya karo.’
Shivani Naik: Pargat Singh was an influence growing up. Have you ever met him, and have you spoken to him after the Olympics?
Whenever Pargat Singh came to the ground, the fame and respect that he got and the way people used to be around him all the time… ‘Pargat Singh aa gaye, Pargat Singh aa gaye…’
That time he was the DSP in Punjab Police. I felt that I too wanted to be like him, and have people say ‘Manpreet aa raha hai.’
I wanted to become a bigger officer than him. Last week I got promoted as the SP from DSP. I met him at the function last week when I got the promotion. I told him, ‘Paaji, finally I’ve become an SP. Now I’m a rank better than you. He hugged me and said ‘sahi me yaar, jo tune bola tune finally pura kar diya.’
Devendra Pandey: Every team has characters who help lighten the mood of the team. Who is that person in your dressing room?
Everyone’s a little, I won’t say naughty… They are nice people. They enjoy it, there is always music and laughter even during tense moments. Sreejesh is very jovial and is the prankster of the team and jokes around with youngsters like Vivek Sagar all the time. I like to annoy Nilakanta Sharma. Our motto is: we are together in both victory and defeat.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Do you think a Chak De India movie will be made on the men’s team as well?
If a movie is made, I want it to be made on the whole team. I want everyone to know about the backgrounds of these players. Their parents’ stories, their struggles should be highlighted.
Sriram Veera: Vinesh Phogat has spoken about how she’s gone into depression. How should the country react to such situations?
When an athlete loses they feel the most dejected and disappointed. And when they fail to hit the target, they feel broken. We need to support her. She may not have won a medal at the Olympics but she is a world-class wrestler. She has won every medal there was in the run-up to the Olympics and then everyone was proud of her. At this time, we need to stand for her, we need to support her, we need to show that the whole nation is with her. She should feel that this is not the time to give up.
Nitin Sharma: Not qualifying for the Olympics in 2008, was considered a new low for Indian hockey. As the Indian captain now, and as a player, how do you look back at that moment?
Every athlete has a dream to play in the Olympics. The hockey players of the team that could not qualify for the Games in 2008 were really disappointed. I did not know much as I was a kid back then. But I felt bad.
Tushar Bhaduri: How did Covid-19 infection and isolation affect your training?
When my tests returned positive, I did not know how to react. When you are locked up in a room and you know that you are positive, a lot of negative thoughts creep into your head. But my team coaching staff were there for me. They told me not to focus on being positive, you just think about your recovery and don’t worry about anything. Returning to the camp, the coaching staff devised a plan to help us recover and get fit as soon as possible. We were not sure how the body would react and what would happen if we pushed ourselves immediately. In Surender Kumar’s case, he had a blood clot when he tried to push hard. So we were eased into training in a gradual process. For the first week, we jogged and then did running and we increased the intensity gradually. It took us three-and-a-half weeks for that.
Last year, we had pre-trained on dealing with isolation. In Bengaluru, we were following these protocols. From the ground to our rooms, rooms to the dining hall, and back to the room. This was our cycle. We always wore masks in public places. Tokyo was not difficult. We got so used to the mask that when we took it off it felt weird. It felt like something was missing from our faces.
Mihir Vasavda: Due to the pandemic, the coach was not changed and overall, there was stability in the playing group. Did that help?
We gelled well as a team in Bengaluru. We got to know each other, the struggles, families, and perceptions. During the lockdown, our coach made individual videos on all the players, chronicling their personal lives and the sacrifices undertaken to make it to the Indian team. We also read about previous Olympic winners like MC Mary Kom and Abhinav Bindra.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Hockey’s still a game played in small towns and villages. What’s needed to make it popular in bigger cities?
Hockey must be played in academies and schools in bigger cities. Recently, I met someone from Delhi who told me that he started watching hockey during the Olympics. After seeing India win bronze, he told me that he wants his son to take up hockey.
Nitin Sharma: 11 players in this team that hail from Punjab…
Yes, 11 from the current squad are from Punjab. But in order to win a medal, all 18 players need to contribute. There are players from Kerala, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh as well. Instead of saying 11 players are from Punjab, we need to figure out how we can improve as a team. I think that’s more important.
Shahid Judge: Has Sreejesh (a Malyali) started listening to Punjabi music?
He’s learning Punjabi. We also taught him quite a lot. But there are things that I cannot say in front of the camera.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Will you consider entering politics like other sportspersons from Punjab?
I’m not a good speaker, so I don’t think I’m equipped to be a politician. Once I quit the game (after seven-eight years), my target would be to give back to the sport and help upcoming players at the grass-root level.