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Indian men’s hockey team have a 50% chance of winning a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics - Zafar Iqbal

Former Indian hockey player Zafar Iqbal feels India's sporting culture needs to change for us to do better in sports. He feels India has a fifty-fifty chance of winning a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

July 29, 2021 / 11:50 AM IST
India's Varun Kumar (22) celebrates with his teammates after scoring on Argentina goalkeeper Juan Manuel Vivaldi during a men's field hockey match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

India's Varun Kumar (22) celebrates with his teammates after scoring on Argentina goalkeeper Juan Manuel Vivaldi during a men's field hockey match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Former Olympian and hockey great Zafar Iqbal who was part of the Indian gold medal winning team at the Moscow Games in 1980 (which remains the last hockey gold for India) is hopeful of a fine show by the current team in Tokyo. Iqbal in a long and candid chat with moneycontrol.com spoke at length on a range of topics related to Indian hockey.

Q: What has been your impression of the Indian team so far after the first three matches in Tokyo?

Z Iqbal: It was a close contest against New Zealand and they did put us under pressure as they had the chance to equalise but our defense was superb particularly goal-keeper Sreejesh and Manpreet Singh and some other players. The game against Australia was very disappointing. Even though India has won against the Aussies in recent times we could clearly sense that the pressure of playing in an Olympic game is entirely different and it was quite evident in our devastating loss. India still needs to improve in few departments, but I am happy with the way they made a comeback when they won convincingly against Spain.

Q: Is India on the right track now?

Z Iqbal: Too early to say that as we still have some tough matches to play before we reach the quarterfinal stage. My concern is the fitness standard of our men’s team. In many ways, our women’s team looks fitter than the men’s team. They are looking very fit and agile and playing with the same speed throughout the game. And If I am comparing the fitness level of teams you can imagine my concern on that aspect. I am sure men’s team will improve in terms of fitness and game plan. The last match against Japan is not going to be easy as they’re the hosts and they scored 3 goals against a strong Australia side.

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Q: The format of this Olympics is such this time that reaching quarter-final shouldn’t be a big issue. The real challenge starts from there?

Z Iqbal: We should qualify for the quarter-finals and as we know that during knock out games it matters a lot how you play well on that particular day. However, we must also be mindful that the teams from Holland, Germany, Great Britain and Belgium are very strong sides and it won’t be easy as we don’t know who we are going to encounter.

Q: Last time Indian won a medal, you were part of the team. Did you ever imagine it will be such a long wait for another medal?

Z Iqbal: Of course not! Even though we have a glorious past we can’t be living in past as other teams have improved tremendously.  People still think India is a huge hockey playing nation. But I am not sure and in fact can confidently tell you that countries like Holland, Germany Spain Argentina, Australia and New Zealand have thousands of clubs and facilities for young players. They are playing a lot more hockey games at grassroots levels than we do and in fact a country like Argentina where hockey is not even number one sport, their sports programme is greater. We are lacking in quality not for one or two but for over three decades and these are not my imagination but what I have seen overseas. We have just few academies and hardly get players from many parts of the country.

 Q: Every time, we go in the Olympics, do the talks of winning gold medals put enormous pressure on the team?

Z Iqbal: Qualifying for Olympics doesn’t mean that you will win a medal. You have to be realistic in terms of rankings and the recent forms. The problem in our country is also about lack of sporting literacy. Only 5 percent of our population is aware of sports and with women the percentage of awareness is even lesser. We are a very politically aware country. We discuss about political parties all the time and on every platform and not the sports issues. If we can change this attitude, India will be a powerful sporting nation.

Q: Do you find resemblance of West Indies’ domination and subsequent decline in cricket to that of our hockey team’s fortunes over the years?

Z Iqbal: Remember, regardless of sports no country can dominate any sport forever. No country can win 8 gold in next 50 or 100 years and that is a huge legacy India has had. From 1928, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Spain have also been playing and we tend to forget who the rivals were because we were winning relentlessly. It wasn’t easy then either, but we had better teams. We lost to Australia in 1968 semi-finals; in 1972 we lost against New Zealand in the very first match. Those were the days when no one talked about bronze as it invited ridicule but now we are taking pride in that as well! Bronze has become a million-dollar bronze!

 Q: Do you think that another gold medal is possible in your lifetime by the Indian team?

Z Iqbal: Again, you are falling in the same trap! You are not talking about silver or bronze or qualification or 5th place finish. Like every fan, you too want gold only. Can you get a gold medal by spending 5 trillion dollars? The mindset like yours also has to change. It is not that easy. We haven’t qualified for semi-finals in forty years, forget a medal. Our best in last four decades has been 5th position in 1984. It has been 6, 7, 8 till 12 and we in fact finished last in London in 2012.

Q: So, you are very pragmatic as far as expectations from this Indian team are concerned. Will you be expecting miracles?

Z Iqbal: We all must back our team with a positive mindset but shouldn’t be putting too much of pressure on them. Praying and playing are two different things. If medals can come through our prayers only, no one could beat us! Indeed, there is no place for any negative thoughts in sports, but I still rate the chances of medal as fifty-fifty. This team looks quite balanced, and I am also very happy with our women’s team show which despite lower rankings has performed admirably so far.
Vimal Kumar is a senior sports journalist who has covered multiple cricket world cups and Rio Olympics in the last two decades. Vimal is also the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.
first published: Jul 29, 2021 11:50 am
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