The 32-year-old goalkeeper believes his team can break the Olympic medal jinx.
India’s veteran goalkeeper PR Sreejesh reflected on his journey with the Indian hockey team so far and stated that they have changed their approach against strong teams after a poor performance in the 2012 London Olympics.
PR Sreejesh stepped out as an Olympian on the field for the first time in 2012; However, It turned out to be a bad outing for him as India finished last in the tournament. He recalled, “Just like the millions of fans of Indian hockey, I have also had a very specific dream throughout my career and that has been to win an Olympic medal for my country. The first time I stepped out as an Olympian in 2012 at the London Olympics, it was an experience I can never forget.”
The goalkeeper added, “Not because it was very positive for me or our team, but because it was my first time at the biggest tournament in the world. The whole excitement around the team and in the Olympic Village is something you don’t experience, even during a World Cup. That tournament was a chance for me to learn so much, but one thing that I always had in the back of my head was that I needed to go home as a medalist, not just as a participant.”
“So, when we were returning home as the last-placed team, it bothered me and I decided that I’ll do everything to help my team get better in all departments, so that when we play in the Rio Olympics, we are competing for the podium. Post-2012, I think our team started working towards it as a collective unit. We started following a different approach towards big matches against strong teams and I think our good performances in the various tournaments helped to build our confidence.”
The Indian hockey team showed big improvements after the London Olympics and climbed up in the FIH world rankings as well as being placed fifth at Rio 2016. The team currently fourth in the rankings, above heavyweights like Argentina, Germany and England. PR Sreejesh says it is a testament to the changes they have made in their approach.
He remarked, “We did have some changes in team management and our teams as well and I think there was always some sort of gradual improvement in our sides. From being 11th in the world rankings in 2012 to climb up to fifth by 2016, it was something that instilled a great sense of belief in our team even going into the 2016 Rio Olympics, where I was the captain. We had seven players from the 2012 team in our squad in Rio and most of us were confident of performing well and getting that elusive medal for India.”
“I remember we started well by beating Ireland, losing a close match to eventual bronze medalists Germany and then defeating eventual gold medalists Argentina. However, that 1-3 defeat to Belgium was a huge setback. I remember at the time, I had said that we were touching the moon but couldn’t reach there and it was true. It did take me some time to recover from it, but whenever people would ask me about it, it felt like someone had put a dagger in my chest – it hurt.”
PR Sreejesh added, “Same was the case with the 2018 World Cup as well, but having seen teams like Argentina and Belgium do well in big tournaments, I believe we also have the opportunity to achieve something with this team. The Tokyo Olympics is a big opportunity for us. We have managed to bring in so many improvements across various aspects of our game, with our fitness being even better than most teams in the world. We have improved on our technical side of things with a good structure and brought more flair and dynamism to our attack.”
India started preparations for the upcoming Olympics earlier this year with some big victories in their first Hockey Pro League campaign. They registered a 5-2 and 3-3 (3-1) win against the Netherlands, before registering a 2-1 success and 3-4 loss against world champions Belgium and 3-4 loss and 2-2 (3-1) win against Australia. However, their campaign was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also forced the IOC to postpone the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.
PR Sreejesh said, “Having achieved our best ranking ever of being 4th in the world, I feel like there is not much of a difference now. We have shown that in our FIH Pro League matches earlier this year, that we can beat anyone and not just beat, but also dominate them with our style of play. I see so many younger players also coming in and performing extraordinarily against the top teams, which was something you would rarely see before.”
“With one year left for our preparations, I think it is going to be the biggest tournament for me as well. Something tells me that it is going to be a huge year for Indian hockey and we can bring that elusive Olympic medal back to our country, if we perform to our potential in Tokyo next year,” he concluded.