1978: A debacle followed by a calamity

A first person account of the 1978 World Cup.

Shahnaz did the bulk of the scoring for Pakistan at Buenos Aires in Argentina.   -  THE HINDU photo library

After the high of 1975 in Kuala Lumpur, we were in the spotlight as the defending champion in Buenos Aires. Hockey was at a nascent stage in Argentina then, but the fact that the sport was growing was reflected in the three natural grass grounds prepared for the competition. They were of excellent quality, but sadly we did not have the best team.

Trouble started at the national camp itself. Key players such as Surjit Singh, Baldev Singh and Virinder Singh walked out due to differences with the team management.

Baldev and Virinder did return but only days before the team left for Buenos Aires. Captaincy, reportedly, was the issue. V. J. Philips became the consensus candidate.

Surjit stayed away and his replacement Gopal Bhengra hardly matched the stalwart as a penalty corner specialist. Gopal was one of the four ‘adivasi’ components in the team — Topno, Vincent Lakra and Dung Dung were the others. They were all talented, but the big stage unsettled them. 

Firstly, these players were not used to playing on the soft surface that was provided. 

And without proper shoes (with studs), they struggled and surrendered the ball quite often. By the time proper shoes were procured through local help, India’s hopes had begun to wane.

In pouring rain, we beat Belgium by a solitary goal scored by Philips, but Canada pulled off a shock victory (3-1) against us. A win over Australia (2-0) was heartening, but the 0-7 thrashing by Germany — India’s worst defeat in an international match — pushed us to the brink of elimination.

Germany was also not doing well (it drew 3-3 against Belgium, 0-0 against England and lost 2-3 to Australia), so India had a chance of moving into the semifinals from Pool A. For this, we had to beat England, but the match ended in a draw.


Worse was when we lost 0-2 to Spain in the classification match for fifth and sixth places. Pakistan was the best team on view — it was unbeaten in the tournament — and deservedly won the World Cup, beating the Netherlands 3-2 in the final.

Islahuddin, Akhtar Rasool, Samiullah, Shanaz Shaik, Manzoor Hassan and Munnawar ur Zaman were some of the gems to emerge from that Pakistan side.

India’s debacle was followed by a calamity — the death of Robert (Bobby) Claudius in a two-wheeler accident in Kolkata. He would not have even unpacked his suitcase at home. Manuel Fernandes and I saw him off in Delhi before I took my flight to Madras. And then this shattering news came.

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