Two-time Olympian Jagbir Singh reminisces Indian Hockey’s topsy-turvy campaign at 1988 Seoul Olympics

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In the eighth article of Hockey India’s Flashback Series, former Indian striker Jagbir Singh went back in time to reflect on India’s topsy-turvy campaign at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the remarkable fightback to the top six after finishing at the bottom of the table in the 1986 World Cup.

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“One can imagine as a youngster when selected for the Olympic Games, how excited all of us would have been! Firstly, for me, it was a dream come true being an Olympian. Secondly, facing the major task of coming back into the top six because India, unfortunately, had finished at the bottom of the table in the 1986 World Cup, and people also started writing us off. So, the big challenge was to bring that confidence among us and also to bring India back where it belongs,” stated Jagbir.

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“This very spirit was inculcated in all of us, right from day one, when we started training at the SAI Campus, Bengaluru. People around us were not just Coaches, they were more like parents. Dr MP Ganesh was our Coach, Padma Shri Jaman Lalji Sharma was our Manager. We were to train like wild horses, to be prepared for the Olympics. We were told that your aim is to finish among the top six and then see how it goes. The main objective was to play the Semi-Final,” he recalled while speaking about the build-up phase of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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MM Somaya-led India kickstarted their 1988 Olympics campaign with a 0-1 loss to Russia in the opening game and held Germany to 1-1 in the second match before registering convincing victories against South Korea and Canada respectively.

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Speaking about the teams’ campaign, the fleet-footed former striker reminisced, “After losing our opening game, it seemed as if it may not work for us in this Olympics. But again, we knew what we are here for. We might have been in the Olympics village, but I still don’t remember having gone anywhere else or having been involved in any other fun activity at the village because we knew we were there for the given task.”

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He further added, “Hence, rest of the matches we could play very well. On the way, we had a couple of good games, we beat Canada and Korea, and played a draw against Germany. We had not conceded more than one goal in each of the league matches we played before the last match against Great Britain, so what we had to do was to play at least a draw and qualify for the Semi-Finals.”

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The Indian team went down 3-0 against Great Britain and were placed in the 5-8 placings bracket. Vividly recalling every moment of the 1998 Seoul Olympic Games, the 56-year-old emphasized that not obeying the coach’s advice cost India a spot in the Semi-Finals. He said that the team could have won that game easily.

Legendary India hockey player BP Govinda recalls his equaliser in Bronze Medal match in Munich Olympics

“We were shattered, we knew where we went wrong. One mistake, not obeying what the Coach had said cost us a spot in the Semi-Finals. We didn’t know where to go because we had lost to a team, which we knew we could beat. We only had to play a draw, and the outcome of the Games could have been different because GB went on to become the Olympic Champions,” he recalled.

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“We played very good hockey in the first half, and the scoreline was 0-0. It was just about handling 35 minutes more, but we failed, and let go of things that were in our hands. Nobody wanted to go back to the room, and no one spoke about what happened because we couldn’t handle those 35 minutes,” he added.

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Popularly known as ‘Striking-circle assassin’, Jagbir also reminisced that the only three senior players in the squad, Shahid, MM Somaya, and Mervyn Fernandes, were one of the key reasons behind India’s nervy win over Argentina in the first play-off match, which went down to the sudden-death tie-breaker.

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“I would say the best part of the team was that seniors like Shahid, MM Somaya and Mervyn Fernandes, not for once, let the youngsters feel left behind, they used to keep motivating us, and this was one of the key reasons, we could beat Argentina in the next game (first playoff match of 5-8 placings),” said the Agra-born player.

However, India lost to Pakistan in the second play-off match and finished sixth at the 1988 Seoul Games. The Arjuna Awardee emphasised that it could have taken 100 international matches to learn what they had learnt in the 1998 Olympics.

“It was an excellent turnout in the end because we were back in the top six. In our career’s first Olympic Games, we learnt so much as a youngster that it could have taken 100 international matches to learn that. First, stick to your aim. Second, to keep that aggression right from the first minute till the end in each and every match, until the tournament finishes. Third, was the attitude as a player that you are the best, and let the teams know because, after the 1986 World Cup, people were not even counting India. I think all the credit goes to Coach Dr. Ganesh and the Manager Jaman Lalji, who made us that much capable. At every step, if our heads were down, immediately their one hand could come on our shoulders, and the other hand on the chin, raising it while giving a pat on the back,” he exclaimed.

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Source: HI Release

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