Rani Rampal and the sadness of India's Asian Games silver

PTI Photo/Vijay Verma

India settle for silver.

A million headlines are going to say that tomorrow. Or maybe something more cheerful. But silver can really suck and as you see her choking back sobs, you know Rani Rampal doesn't want to settle.

The 2-1 defeat to Japan in the final of the Asian Games takes time to register. The spotlight of the medal ceremony prolongs her agony. That runner-up medal, the handing of the stuffed deer for second place, the posing and accepting of commiserations - she looked like she wanted none of that.

She puts on a brave face and speaks of mistakes made and the fact that she is proud of being part of an Indian side that's reaching an Asiad final after 20 years. She appears to be in control of herself, once more a hard-edged professional player deciphering tactics. And then again it hits her like a wave, and that stoic wall shatters into tears that take a embrace from a friend to contain. "Maybe tomorrow they will realise they won a silver. For today it will feel like they lost the gold," says coach Sjoerd Marijne.

In the immediate aftermath of the match there is deathly silence as the players and staff process what's just happened in Jakarta. They can hear their opponents celebrating just a hallway away and on the pitch outside. Goalkeeper Savita Punia is the first to speak. Replaced with a couple of minutes to the final buzzer as India searched desperately for an equaliser, she probably knew what was coming a little before the rest of them. "It's ok, girls. We did what we could. Can't do anything more now. Let's go out and enjoy the silver," she tells the silent room. "She said that to break the sadness," says Monika Malik.

Brave words.

It works for some of the younger members of the team - like Lalremsiami, Gurjit Kaur, who wave on the podium. Rani smiles, because she understands. "For some of the younger girls it is different. They don't know the struggle that it will be when you have to try again after four years. It takes so much out of you," she says.

It's through sheer force of will that captain Rani, the talisman of the Indian team, has pulled herself through the tournament. She's walking wounded. Her right shoulder is taped thickly, her ankle is injured and she's taking painkillers to compete. "Blood, sweat and tears," according to Wayne Lombard, the physio of the Indian team. "India doesn't have the kind of bench that teams like China and Japan have. They've changed 40 players over the course of the year. In India, we have been playing roughly the same 20 players over the course of four big tournaments. It's taken every ounce of their willpower to get through the tournament," he says.

The Asian Games also hurts because this was supposed to be the tournament that turned things for the team. This is a side that was treated abominably by the suits, with coaches added and replaced like coats on a rack. "We were so close at the Commonwealth Games (where they were beaten in the semis) and the World Cup (where they lost to Ireland in the quarters). We thought the Asian Games would be the one. We gave everything we had but today it was not enough to win the match. It is proof that despite all the work we have put in, our target is still far away. And we have to go on until we get there," says Rani.

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Monika Malik finds the bittersweet humour in this. "You know when we won a bronze at Incheon (at the 2014 Games) we felt a lot happier. Maybe because this team was just starting out together back then. We were sad when we lost the semi-finals but when we won a bronze medal, there was a different sort of happiness. Now when we have lost a gold, it is a different sadness," she says.

It's hard to explain to the Indian fans who have showed up at the venue to capture this moment on their phones and autograph-books. The Indian players humour them with fake smiles. "It's still playing on my mind. I can't be happy about losing," Monika says. "I can only explain to my heart that I have a silver," she says.