~ The team has learnt from its past mistakes at the Olympic Games believes Sreejesh who Captained the Indian Team at Rio Olympics in 2016 ~
New Delhi, 19 July 2021: With just five days left before the Indian Women's and Men's Hockey Teams begin their campaign at the Tokyo Olympic Games, the excitement among hockey fans is palpable. In the last of the Flashback Series article, we caught up with India's most experienced goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who Captained the Indian team in the Rio Olympics in 2016.
"Like every other athlete, I too grew up with the dream of representing India at the Olympic Games. My earliest Olympic memory was of PT Usha and because I come from Kerala, every household knew her name and how close she had come to winning a medal in the Olympics. In hockey of course, I looked up to Anna (Dhanraj Pillay) and followed his career closely," stated Sreejesh emphasizing the impact these two icons had on his formative days.
Though Sreejesh had made his international debut in 2006, he had to wait another six years to represent India at the Olympics. "Unfortunately, we didn't qualify in 2008 for Beijing and hockey was facing a real slump in those days. But things improved once Hockey India took charge and introduced a very systematic approach to our training and competition. Between 2008 to 2012, the first big aim was to qualify for the London Olympics. Though we had a dismal outing there, the players who stayed on in the core group knew we had to set the bar higher and focus on becoming a dominant team in Asia. We aimed at the 2014 Asian Games and a direct qualification for the Rio Olympics," recalled the experienced goalkeeper who will be making his third appearance for India at the Olympic Games.
Sreejesh believes that strong performances at the world stage, particularly the World League Final in Raipur in 2015 where India won Bronze and a historic outing at the FIH Champions Trophy in 2016 where they won the Silver Medal put the team in good stead for the Rio Olympic Games. "It was a good team, and we knew we were very capable of making it to the top four. The fact that Quarter Finals was introduced from 2016 Rio Olympics onwards was a big advantage. We were grouped in Pool B along with Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, Ireland and Canada. We knew we had to finish in the top 3 in our pool to get a relatively easier opponent in the Quarters," Sreejesh opined.
Though the Sreejesh-led Indian team was poised to overcome this first hurdle as they had opened their campaign with a 3-2 win against Ireland, 1-2 loss against Germany, 2-1 win against Argentina, 1-2 loss against the Netherlands, it was the 2-2 draw against Canada that derailed India's plans. "I don't think anyone of us part of that match can ever forget it. We conceded a penalty corner in the 52nd minute which was converted by Martin Tupper who had scored the previous goal too. I think that match put us out on contest in Rio though we qualified for the Quarter Finals," feels Sreejesh.
This 2-2 draw against a lower-ranked Canada meant India would play the formidable Belgium in quarterfinals. "I think we would have liked to play Spain in the Quarter Finals. But in the Olympics, no team can be taken lightly, and we have learnt from our past mistakes. We were the only team that had won against Argentina who eventually became the Olympic Champions in 2016. That means we were a good team with great potential to make it to the podium but did not deliver when it mattered," rued Sreejesh.
Eager & excited to get on with matches
Having arrived in Tokyo on Sunday, there is tremendous excitement among the players in the squad. Sreejesh said, "This is the moment we had all been waiting for. We can't wait to get on with the matches and give our best and build our momentum match-by-match. I think no one can predict any team this time simply because we haven't seen each other play over the past 15 months. There could be a lot of surprises too and we are mentally prepared for it."
Pooled in Group A, the Indian Men's team will begin their campaign against New Zealand on 24th July. "We need to shake off the nerves quickly and produce a good performance in the opening match. Getting off to a strong start is quite crucial in a tournament like the Olympics. It will give the right momentum for other matches in the group stage," he concluded.
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