In his 10 years with the national team, SV Sunil had never experienced such deathly silence in the dressing room before. He stood in one corner and stared blankly at his teammates. Some sat motionlessly; most were fighting back tears. “In my 10 years, I haven’t seen any result have such an impact on the team,” he says.
Sitting a few yards away from him, midfielder Manpreet Singh was still in denial mode. “It didn’t sink in immediately. This was a great chance for us to win the gold and we couldn’t believe we had blown it. Everyone around me was in tears,” the centre-half says.
Captain PR Sreejesh could hear a few Pakistani players snigger at them as they walked through the tunnel for their semifinal against Japan. As if the defeat to Malaysia in the Asian Games semifinal wasn’t humiliating enough, this felt like salt rubbed into the wounds but Sreejesh knew it was wise not to react. “We ourselves had given them this chance. It was upsetting but we thought we’ll take our frustration out on Japan in the bronze medal match,” Sreejesh says.
Ironically, Pakistan too lost. And a day later, what was largely expected to be a gold medal match turned out to be a fight for the scraps as India and Pakistan faced off in the bronze medal playoff.
India won 2-1 but it was hardly a consolation for a team that claims to be head and shoulders above the rest in Asia. “I have never seen such sad faces on a podium while accepting medals,” Sunil says.
It was Sunil’s miss in the sudden death penalty shootout that eventually condemned India to the semifinal exit and he hasn’t been able to sleep peacefully since. Those two misses in the shoot-off have been playing in his head on loop. “I keep on thinking what could I have done differently… if I would’ve turned the goalkeeper the other way, maybe it would have been a goal,” he says. Manpreet says he wanted to simply put his arm across Sunil, as if to say it wasn’t his fault the team lost. But he couldn’t bring himself up to it, thinking about his own missed penalty instead. Ever since he’s started playing, Manpreet calls his mother after every match. He broke the ritual for the first time, not speaking to anyone back home till Sunday night, before he boarded the flight back to Delhi.
On Monday, the players walked around the lobby of a plush Lutyens hotel expressionless; eating their lunch in silence. Youngsters Varun Kumar, Krishan Pathak and Dilpreet Singh may have won their first Asian Games medal, but seemed too embarrassed to talk about it.
Beyond the sadness and disappointment is simmering anger. Anger of not winning the matches they ideally should have; of conceding late goals; of, once again, falling short when it mattered.
One bad match?
The players say this is a case of having one bad match in an otherwise flawless tournament. But there is also the realisation that this has been happening far too often. In the last four years, India have lost in the semifinals of five major tournaments —the Champions Trophy (2014), World League in Raipur (2015) and Bhubaneswar (2017), this year at the Commonwealth Games and now at the Asiad. Most defeats have followed a pattern—either through late goals, or simply because the players could not execute the game plan.
Former coaches Roelant Oltmans and Sjoerd Marijne have lamented this. Harendra Singh, who got the job after the CWG debacle, echoed his predecessors after the semifinal defeat. He tore into his team for their inability to play ‘simple hockey’ in crunch situations.
Manpreet, who captained the team at the CWG, says the players have discussed this issue among themselves. “Maybe, we get nervous towards the end and start panicking. We keep thinking ‘haarna nahi hai’ (we shouldn’t lose) and I guess that’s how we put ourselves under pressure,” he says.
Sunil adds, maintaining his poise: “In such situations, every player feels like doing something special to help the team. So then, we end up trying something fancy individually instead of playing simple hockey, which is passing the ball and keeping it in the opposition’s half. We can keep on changing coaches, but we as players need to take responsibility as well.”
Quality of the domestic field
Sreejesh says one of the reasons for this ‘poor execution of skills’ is the quality of domestic hockey. The national team players are locked up in the national camp for a major part of the year because of the inferior coaching techniques in domestic leagues and a haphazard schedule. Consequently, the only match practice they get is directly in tournaments.
“A youngster in Australia, Holland or Germany grows up playing against Jamie Dwyer and other top players in high intensity matches in their leagues every weekend. So by the time he joins the national team, he is prepared for different match situations. That’s one area where we can do better,” Sreejesh says.
For a short-term fix, especially with an eye on the World Cup, the players accept they need to mend their ways. The team will re-assemble in Bangalore on September 16 for a month-long camp before next month’s Asian Champions Trophy, where they will be up against the same teams once again.
Between now and November 28, when the World Cup will begin in Bhubaneswar, the agenda is set. “Play simple hockey and get mentally strong, that’s our aim,” Sunil says. “We have had enough of last-minute defeats.”