New Delhi, August 2: Fans cheered from every corner of the country as the Manpreet Singh-led Indian men's hockey team reached the semi-finals of the ongoing Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
The elation was worth it as the national sport had taken a backward step in the last decade as performances had dried up. But this team means business and the way they have made a comeback in the tournament after losing to Australia 7-1, speaks volumes about the grit and determination of the players.
And after Sunday's comprehensive win over Great Britain in the quarters, it finally looks like the glory days are back. For a country that didn't put a foot wrong in the game from 1950-1980, the recent past had been anything but disappointing. But as the team gears up to play the semi-finals of the Olympics after a span of 49 years - the 1980 edition didn't have semi-finals - one must remember that the journey has been possible as much for the off-field efforts as it has been for the display on it.
The Indian teams - both men and women - have spent the last year and a half in SAI Bengaluru as they looked to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic. They did take small breaks a couple of times, but it was more about training, strategising, and adapting to the bubble life. It can be quite taxing, but that is where the players and support staff ensured they did not crack.
But it wasn't just training and planning as Hockey India also arranged tours for the teams and it is a well-known fact that playing against Argentina in the lead-up to the Games boosted the morale of the boys.
Not to forget the association also ensured the women's team was given equal opportunity to train. And all this could have been slightly difficult had there not been the uninterrupted support from the Government of Odisha.
While they came on board as official sponsors three years back - the only state to sponsor a national team - their contribution can't be restricted to just talking about the sponsorship.
Hockey is seen as part of the culture in many parts of the state and the love the people of Odisha have for hockey is reflected in the strong commitment of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for the development of the game.
The state in partnership with Hockey India has conducted all the major hockey tournaments in Bhubaneswar including the Men's World Cup, World League, Pro-League, Olympic qualifiers. With the backing of an entire state, it is there for everyone to see how the national team has performed consistently and even punched above their weight.
In fact, the representation on the field is also quite visible. While Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas form an integral part of the men's team, the state has produced one of the best women's hockey players in Deep Grace Ekka. While Lakra played his 200th match in the ongoing Olympics, Rohidas earned his 100th cap.
Over the years, Hockey Odisha has given India some of its best players including Lakra, Dilip Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Prabodh Tirkey, and Subhadra Pradhan. Tirkey, known for his known penalty-corner hits, shall count as one of the best hockey players to have ever donned the Indian jersey. He created a reputation for himself as one of the most difficult defenders to get across.
Even though India never won a medal during Tirkey's time at the top -- 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney, and 2004 Athens Olympics -- every opponent was wary of the skills the Indian maverick had, and no one took it easy when he had the ball in control.
Coming back to the ongoing showpiece event, the teams were also picked keeping conditions in Tokyo in mind.
"Heat and humidity were factors behind team selection. Flexibility was also taken into account," men's coach Graham Reid had said post the selection of the team.
Reid had also predicted how the tough mentality created in the camp will help the players and that has been on display after the loss against Australia. "In the last 15 months, I have got to know my players very well, the mentality of the group, and their stories in a 10-minute one-on-one video which is very powerful. We have to understand that they were in a bio bubble and when the chips are down in Tokyo this tough mentality will help them get through," he had said.
While the going only gets tough from here on -- India will face Belgium in the semi-finals - every member of the team and support staff would be proud of how they have fought every obstacle to reach the semi-finals for the first time in 49 years. A gold medal would be the perfect finish to what has already been a fairytale journey.
After 1-7 defeat to Australia in the group stages at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the team, coach Graham Reid said, did not panic even though it was India’s biggest defeat in terms of scoreline at the Games.
“The thing is if you actually go and have a look at the game, we weren’t that bad,” India coach Graham Reid said. “The result was bad but the numbers didn’t show a 7-1 game.”
Sunday, Reid felt, could mark the beginning of something new. “At the end of the day, what was lacking is just that experience of big games,” he said. “They have the belief. You have to learn to win and then you have to repeat it.”
“Enjoy the next couple of hours. But our job has only just started,” Reid said after India's win over Great Britain in Quarter-finals