The yell at the end. Primal. Raw. Loud. Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh had been shouting his throat hoarse all game long in that Indian goal. All tournament long, in fact. Nothing, though, could match the decibel count on that last yell.
Leading Germany 5-4, Sreejesh had pulled off yet another save to protect India's lead. Three seconds later, India were crowned bronze medalists.
That yell was a release.
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India had won their first Olympic medal in field hockey since 1980 and that yell said it all. Forty one years of pain, nasty jokes, administrative goof-ups, in-team politics, wasted talents and just plain mocking... that yell was for everything the lovers of this game have had to put up with. From within and without Indian hockey has been under assault for decades now.
The players around him didn't know quite what to do. Some jumped on him. Others sank to the floor, hands covering their faces. Some ran around deliriously. The bench rushed onto the field, the ones on the field rushed to the bench. The Germans, in the background now, were screaming at the umpires' faces. In the stadium, it was bedlam.
It had been a brutal bronze play-off, following a brutal tournament.
In the group stages, India had been obliterated by the sleeveless-jersey-clad attacking juggernauts of Australia. They had recovered from that to win every other game. In the quarterfinals, they soaked up pressure from Great Britain for swathes of the second half before killing the game off on the counter [that third goal from Hardik Singh was rather special]. In the semifinal they had been utterly dominated by the penalty-corner conversion machine that is Alexander Hendrickx and his world champion Belgium team.
The bronze medal match was their tournament in a microcosm.
Germany dominated for the opening 27 minutes -- Simranjeet Singh's superb tomahawked goal notwithstanding -- and all you could hear was Sreejesh cursing his defenders out. The Germans were all over India when suddenly without much notice, it turned. Two penalty corners, two Harmanpreet Singh specials. This was quickly followed by another Simranjeet goal, this time a classic poacher's finish, and a Rupinderpal Singh penalty stroke. Seven minutes either side of haltime, four goals, slumped shoulders straightened - and India had pulled off something rather special. Well, almost. Germany would score again late on, and it would take the magic of Sreejesh to make sure they didn't add to it.
Past Indian teams would have crumbled at various moments in this match. When Germany took the lead that early. When Surendar Kumar attempted a frankly ludicrous dribble in his own circle and was dispossessed for Germany's third. When they were under the cosh for so long -- at times stuck in an infinite loop of penalty corner after German penalty corner. This team, though, just keeps on going. And it shows in the little moments.
- Amit Rohidas charging out first whenever one of those 13 penalty corners were lined up -- he'll tell you it's his job, but most jobs do not require you to charge down a hard hockey ball travelling at 150 km/h.
- Rupinderpal Singh sliding in with a vital interception in the dying seconds of the third quarter, the memories of a rubbish first half in defence consigned to the dustbin.
- Hardik Singh having the courage to back his skill, dribbling out of danger time and again.
- Nilakanta Sharma, misplacing passes hither and thither, till one stuck [the sublime assist for Simranjeet's first goal].
- Mandeep Singh, bullied relentlessly throughout the match, charging into the German circle, asking for more, time and time again.
- Manpreet Singh, overwhelmed in midfield, continuing to bite and snap and challenge everything. "...we didn't give up. We kept fighting back," he would say after it was all done.
They pulled it off because they believed -- in their coach, in their teammates, in their training, in themselves -- and because they ran themselves into the ground. As Graham Reid said after the match, "(It is) never over until it is over. It's always easy to say you should be doing this or that but there are lots of things that go on. It has been one of the signatures of this team, which we have tried to develop. [To] make sure that we can always come back... and I think we did that."
If you look at it dispassionately, there are several holes to pick, but none of that matters at the moment. This is not the time for cold examination, this is the time to rekindle an old romance.
Every team that India has sent out onto the artificial turf for the past four decades has had to bear the weight of their glorious past... and has collapsed unto itself. Not this one. And that is why this matters. Why this win was more than just the sum of its parts. Why that yell was oh! so loud.
Hockey isn't dying. No, sir. Its star is shining bright and it has a distinctive bronze sheen to it.