Manpreet Singh was too small to understand the intricacies. But he remembers waking up in the middle of the night after a knock on the door, his mother and two brothers gingerly opening it, and watching his father standing outside, expressionless and impassive.
“Dad worked as a carpenter in Dubai,” Manpreet says. “I don’t know what had happened but one night, without any notice, he came back wearing the rugged, dusty clothes he’d worn to work.”
Life, as he knew it, had taken a tragic twist. His father, the family’s sole breadwinner, slipped into depression. “But we didn’t have money to take him to a good doctor. It was tough to see him in that condition. It hurt a lot,” Manpreet says.
As the youngest of three brothers, he was somewhat shielded from the struggles that followed. But that night instilled a sense of responsibility in him. “You think about events in life that shape you as a person,” Manpreet says. “For me, that was the moment.”
His voice quivers and those mischievous eyes turn moist. A couple of minutes later, a glowing smile returns on his face. “Everybody has sacrificed something to reach this far, not just me. So, it’s okay,” Manpreet says, typical of the man who wears his successes, failures and struggles lightly.
In a way, Manpreet is an outlier.
Unlike the captains of the Indian cricket and football teams, his popularity still hasn’t transcended his sport. A Virat Kohli or a Sunil Chhetri are followed by millions, chased by brands and are superstars of their games. Why just cricketers or footballers, even some of India’s hockey stars have gained acclaim beyond the sport, across generations.
But the man who led India’s march to the Olympic podium after 41 years maintains a mysteriously low profile, perhaps, symptomatic of a system where it is frowned upon to have individual voices and identities.
When he speaks on official platforms, the jovial and quick-witted 29-year-old is careful and cautious, rattling off the clichés and sticking to the script, rather than delving deep. It’s in stark contrast to his personality on the turf, where he is spontaneous, speedy and daring. And because he doesn’t score goals in every match, rarely indulges in something flashy, isn’t a hypnotising dribbler like Dhanraj Pillay, or blessed with the vision and simplicity of Sardar Singh, Manpreet rarely gets the due attention.
Yet, it’s not a coincidence that the story of Indian hockey’s resurgence is interwoven with Manpreet’s emergence.
When ‘Korean’ burst onto the scene in 2011, Indian hockey was still trying to bounce back from its lowest ebb – the failure to qualify for Beijing Olympics.
In hindsight, 2011 was also the year India’s 10-year project – it can now be called that – began. It remained in a perennial state of turmoil. But as coaches came and went, players made debuts, got axed, and retired, the team made tiny steps forward.
Michael Nobbs and David John changed the definition of a typical Indian player by putting fitness at the centre of their idea. Terry Walsh added structural discipline, Roelant Oltmans brought stability, Sjoerd Marijne taught them to think independently and on their feet and Harendra Singh – who gave Manpreet the first break after advice from former drag-flicker Jugraj Singh – gave them the freedom on field.
Amidst the constant churning in the national team, the Hockey India League (HIL) made the young Indian players technically stronger and fearless. Manpreet and PR Sreejesh, one of the finest Indian goalkeepers ever, are the only two players from the current lot who have been through and survived all this.
Manpreet’s uniqueness, though, lies in the fact that he can’t be bracketed into any one type of player. He is a sum total of all those tiny steps taken in the last decade.
His speed was one of the reasons he got called ‘Korean’ at the start of his career, a nickname that has stuck since. By playing in the HIL, and under half-a-dozen coaches, he added different dimensions to his game, making him an all-round player.
Manpreet is strong on the ball, making him a valuable centre-half, given most of the moves pass through this position. His quick thinking makes him the point person for transitions from defence-to-attack, and vice versa. He possesses a high level of game intelligence, which enables him to communicate effectively on-field and coordinate the movements of his teammates. He scores an occasional goal, acts as a stopper in attacking penalty corners and can perform the duty of a first-rusher in defensive PCs.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Manpreet’s leadership abilities have been put under the magnifying glass, especially after a string of below-par performances in 2018 – at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cup.
Those were the months of real crisis and at that moment, a podium finish at the Olympics looked like a distant dream. But then came Graham Reid, who was appointed India’s new coach in mid-2019. And apart from his tactical genius, Reid introduced something very valuable to a chaotic group: a sense of calmness.
By the time 2020 came, India looked prepared for the Olympics. But the extra year, following the postponement of the Olympics due to the pandemic, gave them time to work on an intangible value: “Togetherness,” Manpreet says. “I think it is the most important thing if you want to achieve anything as a team.”
Manpreet is wiser with experience. The stories about divided dressing rooms have become a part of Indian hockey folklore. What was always whispered within hockey circles was brought out in the open by Nobbs, who, in his London Games report, wrote about the ‘clique’ culture that held back the team. Nobbs, in fact, had specifically mentioned that the cliques within the playing group had affected Manpreet’s performances at the 2012 Olympics, the midfielder’s maiden Games.
So, when the entire squad got stuck inside the Sports Authority of India Bangalore Centre during the lockdown, they used the time to get to know each other better. “The idea was to understand each other’s backgrounds and the kind of sacrifices their families made to help them reach so far. This helped team bonding a lot,” Manpreet says.
This isn’t to suggest it was an all brothers-in-arms kind of an atmosphere. But there was bonhomie and, at the Olympics, it was visible that all players had each others’ backs.
Manpreet read about the journeys of the earlier generations. He got inspired by the stories of defenders Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra, who come from nondescript villages in Odisha. “They had no electricity; their families had to struggle even for two proper meals…” Manpreet says.
He marvelled at the resilience shown by Vivek Sagar Prasad, who overcame a life-threatening injury to become the second-youngest player ever to play for India. The admiration is mutual – Prasad, who plays in the same position as Manpreet, is in awe of the way his captain carries the team together, especially during tough moments.
There was one player’s story, however, which Manpreet could relate to straightaway – SV Sunil’s. The speedy forward had lost his father while he was in Malaysia for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2009. Seven years later, Manpreet was playing in the same tournament when he received the news of his father’s demise.
“I flew back to be with my family. But once all rituals were completed, my mother insisted that I joined the team. The way the entire team supported me during those days… it’s hard to forget. So, it was my responsibility to be with them at an important tournament.”
His teammates describe him as ‘progressive’ and ‘open-minded’, traits Manpreet says he inherits from his mother, Manjeet. “She has played a huge role in making me what I am today,” he says.
After his father, Baljit, returned from Dubai, he wasn’t in a position to work because of his condition. Neither were the three brothers, who were still studying – the eldest brother was 18 while Manpreet, the youngest, was 10. So, Manjeet took over the responsibility.
“She did tailoring and stitching and worked incredibly hard,” Manpreet says. “It must have been so tough but she never put any restrictions on us, koi bandish nahi. She encouraged us to do whatever made us happy. Even when I met Illi, she just told me to listen to my heart and not worry about anything else.”
‘Illi’ – Illi Najwa Saddique – is Manpreet’s long-time girlfriend turned wife. Theirs is a sweet little story – Manpreet was playing the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia in 2012 when after a match, Illi – a Malaysian of Pakistani descent – walked up to the players for pictures. There, she met Manpreet, who asked the team’s liaison officer for her number.
“Everything happened quickly and we went on our first date. Right after that, Manpreet mustered up his courage and told my mum he intended to marry me,” Illi wrote for social media platform India Love Project.
After years of a long-distance relationship, they got married last December. Religion became a point of contention for some on the outside – it became a burning issue in Malaysia, with the Johor Islamic Religious Department initiating an ‘investigation’ – but within the families, there was never any doubt.
“My mother is very open-minded. She didn’t have any problem with religion,” Manpreet says. His mother had only one bit of advice for him. “’Whatever happens, don’t break anyone’s heart,’” Manpreet says.
His mom might as well have been referring to generations of Indian hockey fans, who have endured many a heartbreak.
Until Manpreet rallied his troops on a sunny August morning in Tokyo to reclaim India’s place on the Olympic podium and usher in a new era of hope.