Three-time Olympian and Arjuna awardee, Mervyn Fernandes, feasted on hockey action from Tokyo, enjoyed watching the flurry of goals in games involving some of the best national squads. Team India’s success in getting the goals from penalty corners and open play were a source of delight for this inside forward from the 80s.
Three field goals set up a 3-1 win over Great Britain in the Olympic Games men’s quarterfinal, the resultant march into the Tokyo 2020 semi-final brought back Seoul 1988 memories in this Olympic achiever from the gold-winning 1980 Olympics squad.
Great Britain won the men’s hockey title in Seoul. India was one of the teams they beat 3-0 in the group stage. Fernandes, a livewire in the strike-force with body movements, slick passing, and crucial goals, was at a loss for words watching Manpreet Singh and a bunch of fighters sent GB out of the competition via goals from Dilpreet Singh, Gurjant Singh, Harjit Singh. He is of the view that goalkeeper P Sreejesh deserves special praise for guidance from the back, chiefly in the third and fourth quarters when the 10-man India was stretched.
He was critical about the yellow card to skipper Manpreet for a legitimate tackle at a stage in the quarterfinal game which could have gone either way. Fernandes, whose second Olympic appearance came in 1984 Los Angeles where India missed out on a semi-berth to finish in fifth place, praised the bold outlook by the younger players in the current squad, the maturity displayed by the experienced hands. India coach Graham Reid’s faith in youth, performance-based selection and the composure shown by seniors when the team is at the receiving end of decisions are to be appreciated.
He was a member of the gold-winning 1980 Moscow squad and pointed out that the round-robin format, followed by the final, was different from this one where leading teams in the group stage go into the knockouts.
“The pressure of a quarterfinal is different from what we faced in Moscow, we were happy to be on the podium." Merwyn hoped the Team India women would go all the way.
Excerpts from a chat as Indian hockey surges into celebration mode:
Reaction to the win over Great Britain?
Extremely happy, cannot be expressed in words. India got the better of Great Britain in men’s hockey so long after 1988 (Seoul Olympic Games). Ever since my retirement (1988), I was waiting for an opportunity to see India on the podium. The barrier of quarter-finals is gone now and the team is taking steps towards making our wishes of a podium finish come true.
You brought up 1988 Seoul here, when India ended up on the wrong side of a 3-0 score-line against Great Britain, the eventual hockey champions. Any recollections?
Those memories are always there in our minds. We only needed to draw against them to make the semi-finals and the score was goalless at half-time. It did not happen the way we wanted from then on, watching Great Britain go on to win the gold at Seoul. The current team was in a similar situation, close to making the semi-final, and did exactly whatever was necessary to get there.
For this team in Tokyo, a possible podium finish is two matches away.
Anything to say about Team India you liked?
We did not create any penalty corners (against England) and won on field goals. I cannot recall any Indian team coming out victorious without forcing a single short corner. P Sreejesh in goal was a standout performer. The running out for short corners was bold and brilliant, players running out in such a way that the goalkeeper needed to take care of his right side. They deserve credit for the way they ensured the left side was covered, it showed the confidence in each other during our penalty corner defence. The second point about this team to be noticed is no dependence on star players. Everybody on the pitch is a match-winner. Credit is due to coach (Graham Reid) and coaching staff to ensure the message went across. It was seen in the fourth quarter against GB when we had a player shot (captain Manpreet Singh was serving a temporary suspension) and those on the pitch went on to score the third goal.
Three field goals in a must-win quarterfinal is a pleasant surprise, coming from a team banking on our battery of drag-flick specialists to get goals….
With no penalty corners coming, field goals became our strength. Hardik Singh took over the midfield role when Manpreet was on the sideline. It was a crucial stage in the match, the youngster delivered, capping his performance with a stunning goal to confirm victory for us. He had earlier set up a goal for Gurjant Singh by getting into position to intercept and pass to his teammate. For India’s third goal, Hardik played without fear, first by taking the ball on his own from almost the centreline, dodged one player and in the closing minutes of the game when legs are tiring, found the strength to turn and shoot, watched the ball rolling off the goalkeeper pads, went for the rebound and finished with a crisp shot. Sreejesh and Hardik were the match-winners.
Manpreet got a yellow card for a tackle. India recovered from a player short to win, your view on the decision at a time when the game could have swung either way?
I watched the card decision very closely, it was uncalled for by the umpire. Manpreet dived and got the ball without hindering the opponent. I don’t know how the match official thought of giving a yellow card to the tackler. I am sure if the umpire sees it again, he will realise it was a wrong decision, that too at a crucial stage in a knockout match. India had lost the chance to make a referral. If you recall, India had been on the receiving end of a decision in 2008, again against Great Britain during a Pre-Olympic Qualifier at Santiago. Sardara Singh and Prabhjot Singh were sent out, we lost that game after losing two key players and missed a chance to qualify for Beijing 2008. Maybe if the referral was in use then, India would have qualified for the Olympics.
Team India women are in the semi-finals, stunning Australia in the quarterfinals. Did you watch the game?
Happy and excited watching the game, enjoyed the domination India women showed over Australia. I have never seen India dominate a top four side like this, all these years following hockey. As our coach (Sjoerd Marijne from Netherlands) had said, the Aussies were under more pressure to win the quarter-final. To have the confidence to not only defend but also attack at every opportunity and hold onto a one-goal lead is incredible. It is the fitness that made the difference for Team India. Happy for hockey, happy for them. Somehow, we wish as a fan that we create one more upset continuing their hard work and faith in themselves.