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Players, coach recall India hockey team’s heartbreaking loss at 2000 Sydney Olympics

The draw with Poland at Sydney Olympics turned out to be a crushing blow for Indian hockey and disillusioned the players and gave a lifelong regret.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi |
Updated: July 30, 2016 8:37:50 am
india hockey, india hockey team, india hockey news, hockey india, rio 2016, olympics, olympics 2016, rio olympics 2016, hockey news India conceded a goal in the penultimate minute of the match and lost a chance to qualify for the semi-final. (Illustration by Subrata Dhar)

The Indian hockey team was cruising along at the Sydney Games and were just 1 minute 46 seconds away from a spot in the semifinals, a result that could potentially have changed the face of the sport. But Poland scored the equalising goal to dash India’s hopes. Mihir Vasavda talks to a few from the Class of 2000 for whom the 1-1 draw was a crushing blow that disillusioned them and gave them a lifelong regret.

‘Went for a few beers to drown my sorrows’
— Vasudevan Baskaran, Coach

It was a cloudy morning. A drilly morning. A lazy morning. I woke up at around 5.30am, had a cup of tea and went for a walk around the Games Village.

My team was playing some fantastic hockey and the boys were in a good mood. Later that evening, we were to play Poland. The previous evening, we had our regular team meeting. I told them to score an early goal so we could play rest of the game at our pace. I told the deep defence not to make any silly errors. All the issues were touched upon.

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Poland were out of contention already. They came into that match to enjoy. We were this close to making the semifinals, so for us it was important to stick to our plan and ensure we won. But I did not think of this during my walk. I was confident of a win. And so were the boys.

We had some very good performances and the atmosphere in the camp was wonderful. Before the Olympics, we were camping at a very small town near Gold Coast. We had a turf to ourselves, four Indian families to take care and stayed at lovely motels. Some days, we cooked ourselves and also went to Gold Coast for a day out.

That positive atmosphere off the field translated to some great performances on it. Later that evening, I picked up some energy bars and fruits for the boys, said a silent prayer in my room and stood near the bus to ensure every player is on time. I don’t like the last-minute rush.

The short ride to the stadium was pleasant. Dhanraj was cracking some jokes as usual. Baljit Singh Dhillon was singing some Punjabi songs. Everyone was doing their bit. Everything till then was going as I had hoped.

Except the events on field. There’s little a coach can do once the match begins. The boys were doing everything right but we just couldn’t score a goal. Not that their goalkeeper was having a great match, he wasn’t doing anything. We hit the woodwork thrice, missed a few sitters and that just made the players very desperate.

Dilip Tirkey found the back of the net in the second half but I was telling them to go for one more. I told Dhanraj to play more up field. I told Mukesh to go in the midfield, Deepak Thakur was asked to be more aggressive. But in the last 10 minutes, we were playing one down. And that added to our agony.

In the last minute, Dhanraj – if I recall properly – unleashed a powerful shot. The ball hit Poland goalkeeper’s pad and the rebound travelled 40m on the left. Their left-midfielder collected it and squared directly to the right-midfield, that was Ramandeep’s zone. That ball should have been stopped.

At that moment, Ramandeep could have played destructive hockey. There’re two things I feel that are important – one, you play constructive hockey most of the times. Or else, if nothing’s going your way then you take one for the team. At least that would’ve stopped the flow of the attack and a few more seconds would have ticked away.

But he slipped, their striker just hit the ball from top of the circle and somehow, it beat our goalkeeper. We were left with barely a few seconds to score the winner but that goal had deflated us completely and we just couldn’t deal with it.

We returned to the dressing room with most of the players in a state of shock. Dhanraj was crying along, Mukesh looked distraught, Ramandeep was in a bad shape, Jude was on his knees… I mustered courage to tell them, ‘Boys, you are not destined to win a medal.’ It was harsh, but there was nothing else I could tell them.

The mood in the bus while returning was the strangest and the saddest that I remember. I returned to the Village to find out that on the fixture’s board, they had already put India’s name in the semifinal. They had updated it after we had taken the lead but forgot to change. That was a painful reminder, one which we really did not need at that point.

Everyone was still trying to understand what had struck us. I took all the blame. To play the placement match was the biggest issue for me. We had not accepted defeat and were not used to playing playoff matches in domestic hockey, where the team used to pack its bags and leave if they lost.

I couldn’t manage to motivate them for the playoff match against Britain. That, for me, was a big failure as the coach. I take the blame for poor man management.

Later that evening, I went out with a few friends and had a few beers to drown my sorrows. But that one minute haunts each of us even today.

‘That thud still echoes in my head’
— Jude Menezes, goalkeeper

Sydney 2000. Hockey. India – Seventh. Even as I say it, it hurts. And that pain, I believe, will stay forever.

It could have been so different. It was one of the best teams India has ever had. And we were all on top of our games, playing beautiful hockey. But all we are remembered for that last-minute collapse against a team with virtually no hockey history.

Every four years, we are reminded of that painful defeat. Yes, it was a draw but it feels nothing less than a defeat. A crushing defeat.

Going into that match, some of the boys already thought we had qualified for the semifinals. We had defeated Argentina and Spain and drew with Australia, who were a really good side. We had done well against all the big teams and a lot of us looked at Poland as a given.

Poland is not a big hockey nation, far from it. But they played in European Championship, which has a very high standard, and were exposed to playing against top teams like Holland and Germany. So they make life really difficult for you. They may not be as skilled as the Indians, but they were structured and disciplined.

And that’s what did us in. Even though Poland were ranked much lower than us, we still had to play well to win it. I don’t think we can say we had done enough. We had plenty of opportunities to win. But we just couldn’t take those chances.

We started the match pretty well, though. I was perhaps having the best seat in the stadium as I wasn’t troubled much by the Polish attackers. We were doing most things right — got into the circle regularly, kept the ball, dominated… but we couldn’t get the goal. Eventually, Dilip Tirkey broke the deadlock from a penalty corner in the 53rd minute. But one goal is never safe. Another goal would really seal the semifinal spot for us.

As the time ticked on, the boys started to get a little bit edgy. I could sense desperation to score the second and things started to get a little bit frantic. At that point, the message from outside should have been to stick to our processes. It takes 10 seconds to score a goal if you keep playing the way you have been playing.

From my vantage point, I could see Poland were barely holding on and cracking under the constant pressure we were putting on them. But Mukesh received a yellow card in the 59th minute and was out for rest of the match. To play 10 minutes with a man down in an international game makes a huge difference. That changed the body language of our players drastically.

Suddenly, there was an open space through the middle and Poland started to exploit that. Still, they were not able to create a meaningful move. In the penultimate minute of the match they just played a hopeful, cross-field pass from the right. It was in Ramandeep’s zone — inside our 25 yards —and he slipped. It’s never a good place to lose the ball and a Polish attacker latched on to it. I don’t even remember the striker’s name, but he took the shot from top of the ‘D’. It was a venomous hit, I stretched full length but the ball sort of touched my pad and went in.

That ‘thud’ of the ball hitting the board still echoes in my head. I sank on my knees and couldn’t muster the energy to stand up again. Through my grill, I could see a lot of my teammates too were in a similar state. We just couldn’t gather the energy to leave the field once the hooter sounded. Dhanraj, I remember, broke down on the field. Coach stood motionless on the touchline. We just couldn’t believe we were unable to win that match.

The disappointment was huge. Before that tournament, we had beaten Australia in Australia; we had won a tournament in Perth. We were really doing well not just pre-Olympics but also during the campaign.

A lot of boys were devasted, Dhanraj was probably the most affected. Almost inconsolable. He didn’t come out of his room. There was a lot of crying. Dhanraj and Harender (Singh, assistant coach) were very upset. I didn’t see them till the next day. In fact, we barely saw the boys the day after. Everybody was in their rooms.

Our biggest failure, rather drawback, was we just couldn’t gather ourselves and look towards the next match. We were pretty average in the 2-1 defeat to Great Britain in the next match and that put us in the playoff for seventh/eighth position. Suddenly, we were a team that was looking good for a medal and ended up finishing seventh. It doesn’t give the true reflection of the squad’s potential. We deserved to finish a lot higher.

‘Locked myself in the room. I cried and cried…’
— Dhanraj Pillay, forward

One minute, 46 seconds. That’s how close we were to an Olympic semifinal and, who knows, even a medal.

Since the 1984 Olympics, we had the best bunch of players at the Sydney Games.

We are some really mature players and a few very talented individuals like Gaganajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Viren Rasquinha, Arjun Halappa and Sameer Dad. It’s easily one of the best teams I have been a part of and there was little doubt in my mind that we would win a medal.

I had even promised amma I wouldn’t return empty handed. And with every passing match, my belief in the ability of that team continued to grow.

Not to sound arrogant, but Poland at that time looked like a minor hurdle for us considering the teams we had played till that point in the tournament. We had beaten countries that were much better and the Pakistan coach even asked for a video recording of our match against South Korea before their semifinal. That’s the level we were playing.

So we were all very confident that we would beat Poland. Each and every member of the team. We began well and in the second half, it started drizzling. The ball was zipping across the turf and we were in our zone. We needed to score two goals and ensure we didn’t lose to progress to the semifinals.

Dilip scored the opening goal and we started pressing for the second. The entire forward line was parked in Poland’s ‘D’. I and Baljit Singh were the schemers, trying to set up our players. But nothing was going in. We were missing some very easy chances. Looking back, I can see it wasn’t meant to be our day.

At that point, though, it didn’t feel that way. We were knocking on the door but with a little less than two minutes remaining, Poland hit us on a counter-attack. They passed the ball from left to right, where Ramandeep Singh was standing.

The Polish player collected the ball in front of Ramandeep and in one move, he turned and hit it in our ‘D’, on top of the circle towards their forward.

It was a quick move, left to right to centre of our circle. Ramandeep went to tackle the forward but by the time he could reach, he slipped and the damage was done. It was an unfortunate slip, but their striker made the most of it. With no one marking him, he unleashed a fierce shot. Our goalkeeper Jude Menezes wasn’t troubled much in that match. He made a full stretch but the ball clipped his pad and…

I couldn’t believe what I saw. That wasn’t how it was supposed to end for us. We were all shocked. Again, I and Baljit tried to find an equaliser. Baljit was carrying the ball and I was making a parallel run to keep defenders away from him. He entered the ‘D’ and had to square the ball towards Sameer Dad.

But Baljit thought he would just lob the ball over an onrushing goalkeeper. Sadly, his move was smothered. The ball was padded out and went for a long corner. By the time we could take it, the hooter went off and that was that.

We had blown the best chance we had to qualify for the semifinals. I sat in their goal post, sobbing. I was shattered like anything and locked myself in the room. I cried and cried…

People were already criticising us that so much money was spent and we returned empty-handed. But back then, they failed to realise how hurt we were. Yes, a win there would have been a turning point for Indian hockey. But it wasn’t meant to be.

We only remember Olympics for all its highs. But these heartbreaks are as much a part of the Games as the gold and glory.

We were in mourning that evening in Sydney. And we still mourn that ‘defeat’.

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