The last 15 minutes weren’t just to enjoy. They were to endure.
India were up by two goals against Britain in their Olympics quarterfinals. But if history has taught us anything about India’s hockey stars, it’s that they have been serial heartbreakers — raising expectations only to sink them. But then, these young men in Tokyo have no regard for history.
They play with the kind of freedom and flair that youth often entails. They run as if they have guzzled a gallon of fuel before stepping on the pitch. They score late goals. They don’t concede at the last minute. They win matches. And they qualify for the Olympic semifinals — a feeling that generations of hockey players and fans have never experienced.
India defeated Britain 3-1 at the Oi Hockey Stadium Sunday to come closest to an Olympic medal in 41 years and made it to the last four for the first time since the sport moved from grass to artificial surface.
India will play world champions Belgium on Tuesday for a place in the final, hoping to win the first medal since the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
On Sunday, goals from 20-year-old Dilpreet Singh, 26-year-old Gurjant Singh and 22-year-old Hardik Singh ensured India reached their first Olympic semifinal since the 1972 Games, when they won a bronze — the 1980 Olympics did not have a semifinal because of large-scale boycotts.
India’s feat is remarkable for a couple of more reasons. It comes at a time when world hockey is perhaps at one of its highest levels. And it follows a demoralising 7-1 defeat to Australia in a group stage match before the team recovered and finished second in their pool.
Coach Graham Reid’s side made a confident start, taking a 2-0 lead at half-time. Britain staged a late fightback after their star player Sam Ward scored in the 45th minute. The goal spurred on the Brits, who parked themselves in the Indian half in the last quarter. And India’s troubles compounded after captain Manpreet Singh was controversially shown a yellow card, leading to a five-minute suspension with a little more than six minutes to go.
The storyline at that point seemed painfully familiar: a key player is shown the card, and India concede late goals to lose the match. But for once, an Indian team did not collapse under pressure, which was immense in those last 10 minutes.
When Manpreet was serving his suspension, goalkeeper P R Sreejesh stepped up to pull off one massive save after another to keep India alive. Sreejesh’s defence held the line and the midfield, at every opportunity they got, pushed forward to take the game to Britain.
Three minutes from time, Hardik sprinted past a couple of British defenders to score the goal that put the result beyond doubt. Soon after the final hooter sounded, some players collapsed on the field while others, like defender Harmanpreet Singh, broke down.
“Sometimes in these situations, you have to bite and scratch and fight. I’m very proud of the way they did,” coach Reid said. “This is a very special group,” the Australian said.
There was a tinge of symbolism, too, at India beating Britain to achieve this historic feat. It was, after all, a loss to Britain in 2008 that resulted in India failing to qualify for an Olympics for the first, and so far the only, time. Sunday’s win will go some way in healing that wound.
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