After what transpired in 2014 after the Champions Trophy semifinal between India and Pakistan, to see the
Bhubaneswar crowd welcome the team from across the border with chants of ‘we love you’ is a little hard to fathom.
At the same venue four years ago, the Pakistan players went overboard in their victory celebrations and even made offensive gestures at the crowd. The act earned a few players suspensions and severely soured ties between the two hockey boards of the two countries.
But here at the World Cup, bygones seem to be bygones. A sizable crowd stayed back after the Pakistan-Malaysia game, which ended in a 1-1 draw, to have a closer look at the neighbours and exchange pleasantries.
“What they did to us in 2014 hurt us a lot. But it’s sports. Sometimes you let the emotions get the better of you, and so we forgave them. No point in holding on to it. But having said that, we will always have that on-field rivalry and that’s what makes the sport interesting,” Akshay Das, a college professor from Cuttack, said.
But this pleasant demeanour in no way should be misconstrued as lack of passion. Malaysia found a new legion of supporters during their match against Pakistan. “I have never followed Malaysia but since they are taking on Pakistan, I will be cheering for them. I hope they are good because I don’t want them to lose to Pakistan,” a fan said.
Four goals were scored in the previous match but none prompted the roar that the crowd let out when Malaysia goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam made an regulation save early on in the game. That’s an indicator of how deep-rooted and alive the India-Pakistan rivalry still is. If one were to watch the match blindfolded, one would get the impression that the match was totally dominated by the Malaysians. Every foray into the opponents’ half, every half-decent pass, every attempt at goal by them was welcomed with the loudest cheers.
The match took off at a nice pace with the Malaysians earning a couple of penalty corners which they failed to convert. Both sides missed ample chances to take an early lead.
The crowd, though, was relentless in cheering on the Malaysians. “Good shot dada, good save,” was being yelled incessantly from the stands. But it was all in good spirit, not once did the crowd jeer or resort to any ugly behaviour while vociferously supporting their new favourites. When Pakistan opened the scoring thanks to Muhammad Atiq, the crowd acknowledged it with claps. Well, most did. The old-school supporters did not move an inch as Pakistan celebrated the goal.
“This is what sports is all about. We can support or cheer for any side we like, but at the same time we should respect our opponents and that is why I stood up and applauded when Pakistan scores. But I know Malaysia will respond soon,” said Akshay.
The computer science professor was spot on in his prediction. Four minutes later, Faizal Saari converted a penalty corner to level the score and send the crowd into a frenzy. The Kalinga Stadium ruptured with joy. The concept of neutral fans doesn’t hold in Bhubaneswar. One is either for a team or against it. Today Bhubaneswar was against Pakistan. But post match, only love prevailed.