Manpreet Singh: Indian Hockey Barometer

Manpreet Singh was too young to understand the intricacies. But he remembers waking up in the middle of the night after knocking on a door, his mother and two brothers carefully opening the door for him, and watching his father stand outside, expressionless and indifferent.

“Dad worked as a carpenter in Dubai,” says Manpreet. “I don’t know what happened, but one night, without any announcement, he returned in the rough, dusty clothes he was wearing to work.”

Life, as he knew it, experienced a tragic turn. His father, the sole breadwinner of the family, fell into depression. “But we didn’t have the money to take him to a good doctor. It was hard to see him in that state. It hurt a lot, ”says Manpreet.

As the youngest of three brothers, he was somewhat protected from the struggles that followed. But that night instilled in him a sense of responsibility. “You think about life events that shape you as a person,” says Manpreet. “It was a moment for me.”

His voice trembles and those mischievous eyes get wet. A few minutes later, a bright smile returns to his face. “Everyone sacrificed something to get this far, not just me. So, it’s okay, ”says Manpreet, typical of a man who takes his successes, failures and struggles lightly.

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In a way, Manpreet is beyond himself.

Unlike the captains of Indian cricket and football teams, his popularity has not yet surpassed his sport. AND Virat Kohli or Sunila Chhetri are followed by millions, chased by brands and are the superstars of their games. Why only cricketers or footballers, even some of the Indian hockey stars have gained recognition outside of the sport, through generations.

But the man who led the Indian march to the Olympic podium after 41 years maintains a mysteriously low profile, perhaps symptomatic of a system in which individual voices and identities are sullenly viewed.

When speaking on official platforms, the cheerful and witty 29-year-old is attentive and cautious, rejecting clichés and sticking to scripts instead of delving into them. This is in stark contrast to his personality on the field, where he is spontaneous, fast and daring. And since he doesn’t score goals in every match, he rarely indulges in something dazzling, he’s not a mesmerizing dribbler like Dhanray Pillay, or blessed with Sardar Singh’s vision and simplicity, Manpreet rarely gets the attention he deserves.

Yet it is no coincidence that the story of the resurgence of Indian hockey is intertwined with Manpreet’s origins.

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When the ‘Korean’ came on the scene in 2011, Indian hockey was still trying to recover from its lowest ebb – the failure to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

Looking back, 2011 was also the year when India started a 10-year project – it can now be called that -. It remained in a permanent state of turmoil. But as coaches came and went, players made their debuts, got fired and retired, the team took small steps forward.

Michael Nobbs and David John changed the definition of a typical Indian player by putting fitness at the center of their idea. Terry Walsh added structural discipline, Roelant Oltmans brought stability, Sjoerd Marijne taught them to think independently and on their feet, and Harendra Singh – who gave Manpreet his first break after advice from former drag flicker Jugraj Singh – gave them freedom on the field .

Amid constant awakening in the national team, the Hockey India League (HIL) has made young Indian players technically stronger and fearless. Manpreet and PR Sreejesh, one of the best Indian goalkeepers ever, are the only two players from the current series who have gone through and survived all this.

Manpreet’s uniqueness, however, lies in the fact that he cannot be classified in any type of player. He is the sum of all those tiny steps taken in the last decade.

His speed was one of the reasons he was dubbed ‘Korean’ at the start of his career, a nickname he has retained ever since. Playing in HIL, and under coaches of half a dozen, he added different dimensions to his game, making him a versatile player.

Manpreet is strong on the ball, which makes him a valuable center-half, as most moves go through this position. His quick thinking makes him a scoring person for transitions from defense to offense and vice versa. He has a high level of game intelligence, which allows him to communicate effectively on the field and coordinate the movements of his teammates. He scores an occasional goal, acts as a stopper in attacking penalty corners and can perform the duty of first striker in defensive computers.

It was not always smooth. Manpreet’s leadership skills have been put under the magnifying glass, especially after a series of bad performances in 2018 – at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the World Cup.

These were months of real crisis and at that moment winning the podium at the Olympics seemed like a distant dream. But then came Graham Reid, who was named India’s new coach in mid-2019. And in addition to his tactical genius, Reid brought something very valuable to the chaotic group: a sense of calm.

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By the time she arrived in 2020, India looked ready for the Olympics. But an extra year, following the postponement of the Olympics due to the pandemic, gave them time to work on intangibles: “Community,” Manpreet says. “I think the most important thing is if you want to achieve something as a team.”

Manpreet is wiser with experience. Stories of divided locker rooms have become part of Indian hockey folklore. What has always been rumored in hockey circles, said Nobbs, who in his report on the London Games wrote about the culture of “clique” that hampered the team. Namely, Nobbs explicitly mentioned that cliques within the playing group influenced Manpreet’s performance at the 2012 Olympic Games, the first midfielder games.

So when the whole team got stuck inside the Sports Authority of India Bangalore Center during quarantine, they took the time to get to know each other better. “The idea was to understand each other’s background and the type of sacrifices their families have made to help them get by so far. That helped a lot in teamwork, ”says Manpreet.

This does not mean that it was a kind of atmosphere of the brothers in arms. But there was friendliness and at the Olympics it was evident that all the players were behind each other.

Manpreet read about the travels of earlier generations. He was inspired by the stories of defenders Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra, who hail from unusual villages in Odisha. “They had no electricity; their families had to fight for even two proper meals … ”says Manpreet.

He marveled at the resilience shown by Vivek Sagar Prasad, who overcame a life-threatening injury and became the second youngest player to ever play for India. Admiration is mutual – Prasad, who plays in the same position as Manpreet, is amazed at the way his captain carries the team, especially in difficult times.

However, there was the story of one player, with whom Manpreet could immediately connect – SV Sunil. The fast forward lost his father while in Malaysia at the 2009 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Seven years later, Manpreet played in the same tournament when he received the news of his father’s death.

“I came back to be with my family. But after all the rituals were over, my mother insisted that I join the team. The way the whole team supported me in those days … it’s hard to forget. So it was my responsibility to be with them in an important tournament. ”

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His teammates describe him as ‘progressive’ and ‘open minded’, traits that Manpreet says he inherits from his mother Manjeet. “She played a huge role in creating what I am today,” he says.

After his father Baljit returned from Dubai, he could not work due to his condition. There were not even three brothers who were still studying – the eldest brother was 18, while Manpreet, the youngest, was 10 years old. So Manjeet took responsibility.

“She was tailoring and sewing and working incredibly hard,” Manpreet says. “It must have been so hard, but it never set us any limits, which bandish nahi. She encouraged us to do everything that makes us happy. Even when I met Illi, she just told me to listen to my heart and not worry about anything else. ”

‘Illi’ – Illi Najwa Saddique – is Manpreet’s longtime girlfriend who has become a wife. Their sweet little story – Manpreet played the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia in 2012 when after the match Illi – a Malaysian of Pakistani origin – approached the players for a photo shoot. There she met Manpreet, who asked her liaison officer for her number.

“Everything happened quickly and we went on our first date. Immediately after that, Manpreet gathered his courage and told my mother that he intends to marry me, ”Illi wrote for the India Love Project social networking platform.

After years of long-distance relationships, they were married last December. Religion has become a point of contention for some outside – it has become a burning issue in Malaysia, with the Islamic religious department of Johor launching an ‘investigation’ – but within the family there has never been any doubt.

“My mother is very open. She had no problems with religion, ”says Manpreet. His mother had only one piece of advice for him. “‘ Whatever happens, don’t break anyone’s heart, ’” Manpreet says.

His mother may have been thinking of generations of Indian hockey fans, who have suffered many heartbreaks.

Until Manpreet gathered his troops one sunny August morning in Tokyo to regain India’s place on the Olympic podium and usher in a new era of hope.

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