The Oi Hockey Stadium marked India’s miraculous victory over Germany 5-4 in their men’s hockey bronze medal match at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Simranjeet Singh scored two goals for India, while Hardik Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, and Rupinder Pal Singh also scored favorably. This victory came after a long 41-year old Olympic medal drought suffered by Indian hockey. The last time India’s hockey team brought a medal home was in 1980, and that was a gold medal. Germany, who were coming off the semifinal loss by the hands of Australia, opened the scoring within two minutes of the start. But India countered in the second quarter to level the scorecard courtesy of a clever finish from Simranjeet Singh. Goalkeeper P R Sreejesh sprinted towards the far corner of the field, slid on his knees, pumped his fists, and roared at the empty stands.
He jogged back, paid an emotional tribute by lying on the ground with folded hands in front of the goalmouth, somehow found his way to the top of the goal post, made funny faces, and laughed hysterically. This was moments after the whistle blew, ensuring India’s bronze in the Olympics. With just seven seconds left in the playoff, Sreejesh parried away a goal-bound shot. And with that one flick of his hand, India won the most-awaited medal and made the day for Indian fans with its 5-4 win against Germany and a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics. In 1980, when the Indian hockey team last won an Olympic medal, cricket was the second on the national sports list, only three months had passed since the formation of BJP, tensions between Iraq and Iran were beginning to simmer.
The Cold War was at its peak, and the USA had defeated the USSR in a dramatic game of ice hockey that was labeled as ‘Miracle on Ice.’ Seems like centuries ago, doesn’t it? Well, thanks to the lucky year of 2022 that Graham Reid’s coached Indian team paid off well on Thursday that is no short of a miracle. On an incredible morning, India went 1-3 down to Rio Olympics bronze medallists Germany, equalized, then took a 5-3 lead, and conceded another late goal before surviving a barrage of attacks until the last second to record a logic-defying win. Field hockey has always been celebrated in India as a tradition. It is the only sport to have brought home 11 Olympic medals, out of which, eight were gold. All this happened between 1928 and 1980. In its days, India was once a shark not to be crossed within hockey.
But the barren 4 decades erased its image all over. Last time, the Indian hockey team won gold at the Japan Olympics, in the year 1964. But after then, it seems gold does no want to come to India, not with hockey at least. Hardik Singh whacked a loose ball into the net which had come off a save from Stadler Alexander off Harmanpreet’s penalty corner. India drew level once again at the end of the second quarter when he thumped a low penalty corner for his sixth goal of the competition. India then went on to take a lead in the third quarter when Rupinder Pal Singh converted the penalty stroke and Simranjeet Singh netted the fifth goal. Meanwhile, Lukas Windfeder kept Germany’s hopes alive with a fourth goal in the final quarter keeping India on their toes. However, Indian goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh – who had nine saves in total in the game – stood with all his defense to deny Germany the equalizer, eventually helping India to a breathtaking win.
Now hockey fans are aware of the image of Germany, that it is almost undefeatable. A master of 1-0 wins, after going down by a goal, especially in an Olympic medal match. But the match with India was incredulous, so much so that it can only be seen with eyes in order to believe it. Hockey sticks flung upward came cart-wheeling down; the players hugged, danced and rolled over one another; captain Manpreet Singh collapsed to the ground, shouting and slapping the turf; Simranjeet Singh, whose two goals played a decisive role, ran aimlessly on the pitch, the rare occasion on Thursday when he looked clueless; Reid, the Australian coach behind the winning team, jumped in the dugout with childlike joy; and in the stands, men and women sobbed with joy.
“I don’t have any words,” Manpreet, who boldly led the Indian hockey team against Germany, told the media. “All these years, when we returned from big tournaments without a medal, the disappointment was greater, the regret was greater. So this time, we were certain that we didn’t want to go back with any kind of regret, any ‘what ifs’.” These “regrets” and “what ifs” had defined one Indian Olympics campaign after another and overshadowed the glow of the eight medals that the country desperately clung on to for four decades.” If someone would have told people that India could stand up to the wrath of Germany and beat it to dust, he would’ve been slapped a lot. But today, this marvelous day defies all speculations.
This generation of players is to be credited for that. These players are toughened by the Hockey India League and a Junior World Cup win in 2016, came out hard to score four times in an enthralling display of attacking hockey. And the discipline and fitness they maintained under the strict influence of coach Robin Arkell were just unachievable. The 16-member Indian team at Tokyo 2020 was headed by midfielder Manpreet Singh, the first Indian hockey player to win the FIH men’s hockey player of the year award – in 2019. Manpreet has been excellent in leading his team’s performance in the last four years, performing well to bring home the Asia Cup in 2017, the Asian Champions Trophy in 2018, as well as winning the infamous FIH Series Final in 2019. In the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar, they also reached the quarterfinals.
There is one very interesting fact about the Indian hockey team and that is, 10 of the 16 players were competing in their first Olympics. Nilakanta Sharma, Amit Rohidas, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Sumit, Shamsher Singh, Hardik Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, and Birendra Lakra are among the ten players. One of the leaders of this comeback was Simranjeet who capped a sublime defense-splitting pass from Nilakanta Sharma with a simple flick of the wrist. It was the kind of goal that brought back sepia-tinted memories of the side led by Pargat Singh at the 1985 Champions Trophy — perhaps the last team to score five goals against Germany in a match of consequence. In Tokyo, even when they were 5-3 up, Indians did not relax, on which Manpreet commented, “When I went to the bench during rolling substitutions, the players reminded me to not get complacent.
I had to tell them, ‘at least saans lene do!’ (let me catch my breath at least!). That was the level of determination we had.” India was in Pool A, grouped with Argentina, three-time world champions, along with current world number one Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and hosts Japan. Only the Australians (1-7) defeated India, but India went on to win all of their remaining matches in the pool to seek the quarter-finals, where India defeated Great Britain 3-1 and bagged a position in the semis. Hopes got up back at home, and India wasn’t going to let them down. But in semis, India was defeated by Belgium 2-5 who was the former world number one hockey team. So then they entered a rivalry match with Germany where the bronze medal was at stake. Germany is rated sixth in the world, one spot behind India (5).
Twitter in India erupted as soon as the final whistle at the end blew. The Indian cricketers along with others in the fraternity showered their praises on this revolutionary win for the men’s hockey team and rejoiced their outstanding performance.