The prized bronze in Seoul

Even now some people say it was a fluke; that we were lucky with the draw and that Japan fielded a second-string team. But people tend to forget that the bronze medal was a result of four years of hard work and meticulous planning by the Volleyball Federation of India. The team was well set and a majority of us were playing together since 1982.

I played 12 years for my country but the one moment which still excites and thrills me is when we won the bronze medal in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. It is easily the best moment in my career. It is something special as it was under my captaincy that India won a bronze medal in the Asian Games after a long gap of 24 years. The enormity of the achievement is that it is still the last medal won by India in volleyball in the Asian Games.

Even now some people say it was a fluke; that we were lucky with the draw and that Japan fielded a second-string team. But people tend to forget that the bronze medal was a result of four years of hard work and meticulous planning by the Volleyball Federation of India. The team was well set and a majority of us were playing together since 1982.

Before the Asian Games we had played close to 30 international matches and had done well in invitation tournaments outside the country. The Test matches against the visiting Soviet Union also put us in good stead. The good show in the Allwyn Gold Cup just before the Asian Games boosted our confidence. The team was in good shape when we landed in Seoul. To me it was a privilege to captain a side which had stalwarts like Jimmy George and Udaya Kumar. Moreover, it was comfortable to work under coaches Achutha Kurup and Sethumadhavan.

But to be honest none gave us a semblance of a chance of winning a medal. The heavy weights of Asian volleyball — China, Japan and South Korea — were expected to win the medals and we were hoping of finishing at least fourth. We were grouped along with Qatar, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei in the preliminary league. We beat both Qatar and Hong Kong rather easily and expected a stiff fight from Chinese Taipei. However, we beat them comprehensively to advance into the superleague.

We beat Japan in straight sets in the first superleague match which assured us of a medal. I have heard people say that we won the bronze only because Japan fielded a second-string team as it rested its main players for the World Championship. I remember the Pakistani players telling us that we had an easy draw and they too would have qualified had they been in our pool.

But in those days, Japan was very strong and leagues ahead of us and we had never won a set against them in the Asian championships or the Asian Games, leave alone a match. Their second-string team was strong enough to rattle us. But it was our day as we won the first two sets rather easily and were up 14-8 in the third when the Japanese fought back. I was nervous and tense when they rallied to 14-12. I still feel we would have lost the match had Japan won the third set. Luckily, we got the serve back and closed the match much to our relief.

In the other two matches, we had no chance against the Koreans and the Chinese who had players with international club experience. Nevertheless, winning the bronze medal was a tremendous achievement. It was like the coming of age for Indian volleyball.

Though I felt emotionally down after being dropped from the Junior World Cup squad in 1980 and from the team for the Australian tour in 1989, as a player on the field my worst moment was the semifinal loss to Haryana in the 1982 National championships in Bhopal. I was representing Railways at that time. We had eight internationals — myself, Abdul Basith, Manoharan, Amar Singh, Abdul Razzak, Ashok Gopal, B. R. Bani and Udaya Kumar — in our ranks and were expected to win the title without much fuss.

Though I had been playing for Kerala in the National championships since 1978 I was not able to taste success. I sensed that it was my best chance to finish on the winning side when I joined Railways which was the strongest team in the country.

There was a lot of controversy and drama regarding my appearance in that National championship. I had joined Railways after quitting Travancore Titanium a few months before the tournament. Kerala had protested to the VFI about my participation in the Nationals. Udaya Kumar and Abdul Razzak had also been named. Sivanthi Adityan, who was then the VFI President, intervened and told the Kerala officials that if we were not allowed to play he would scrap the National championship. Kerala relented and we played in that tournament.

We were determined to give our best for our new team. Our team started in style by demolishing all rivals in the earlier rounds and perhaps got overconfident against Haryana in the semifinals. Haryana also had a few good players like Dalil Singh, Om Prakash and Sandeep Singh. But man to man we were a much better team.

However, in the semifinals, everything went wrong. We committed a lot of errors, were not at the top of our game and lost in straight sets. Though we finished third after beating Kerala in the play-off, it was only a small consolation. To this day I still cannot comprehend as to how we lost that semifinal. That defeat still rankles.

As told to M. R. Praveen Chandran

(Cyril C. Valoor is now a Deputy Commandant of the Kerala Police based in Thiruvananthapuram. He won the Arjuna Award in 1986.)