Former Indian hockey captain Viren Rasquinha has seen the national team’s performances in the Olympics for a few decades and believes that the current side is capable of ending the country’s long wait for a medal at the mega event this year.
Apart from tracking the progress of the Indian men's and women's hockey teams during the Olympics, Rasquinha will also be keeping an eye on the performances of some of India’s top athletes because of his role in the Olympic Gold Quest.
Rasquinha, who will be part of Sony Sports' live studio show, Sports Extraaa, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games from July 23, shared his views with Sportstar .
There is a lot of medal talk around the men’s hockey team in the run-up to the Olympics this time. Is it realistic?
Every Olympics, there is medal talk. That’s not new. Honestly, this is the best chance for a medal in the last 20 years. Our last chance was in Sydney 2000 when we just missed out on a place in the semifinals. I would say the team has really played well in the last four years. They have improved step by step, consistently and have beaten all the top teams over the last four-year Olympic cycle. If we play to our potential, we should come out of a fairly tough group. I won’t say it is a very tough group, but there are no easy matches at the Olympics. The first goal should be to come out of the pool to the quarterfinals. If we go as per rankings, we could face either Holland, Germany, Belgium or Great Britain in the quarterfinals. So that would not be an easy match.
Do you think India has a very balanced side?
Of course, we are very balanced. Graham Reid has done a very good job in moulding the team in the way he wants to play hockey. There is a lot of freshness, enthusiasm and hard running. A lot on the lines of fitness. Players can adapt to different positions. Undoubtedly, it is a very good team that we have.
Do you think for serving Indian hockey with distinction for so many years, Sreejesh deserves to win a medal?
Of course, not just PR Sreejesh but Manpreet as well. Manpreet is playing his third Olympics and he has played more matches than Sreejesh, who has been a rock under the bar for India. If I am not mistaken, he made his debut in 2006. So it is 15 years of sacrifice for the country. It is not easy, especially when you have a family and young kids. He has been phenomenal at the goal. I really hope for Sreejesh’s sake, for Manpreet’s sake and for India’s sake, it’s high time we won a medal.
It is said the current team is among the fittest sides in the world. How different is it?
When I talk about fitness, I don’t just talk about the men’s team but I would also like to say a big word of appreciation for the Indian women’s team. The difference from the time I was playing to now, in women’s hockey, skill was never much of a factor. We matched the top teams in the world on skills. Especially in women’s hockey, our girls were not fit enough and strong enough. I think that gap has been bridged over the last four-five years. This Indian women’s hockey team has been very strong, very fit. I see them doing weight training regularly. Now they are able to match the Europeans, who play a very tough body game with a lot of close marking.
You were a midfielder. How do you rate the midfield of the current men’s side?
With Manpreet Singh leading the midfield, he is the fulcrum, he is the guy with boundless energy and is constantly the bridge between defence and attack. I am also very impressed with Vivek Sagar Prasad – a crafty midfielder, he is not afraid of going to attack, scoring goals, and finds himself in the right position. You need goals coming from the midfield as well. We have Sumit, Hardik, Nilkanta – who are young, sharp and physically fit. So, a lot of depth in the midfield and they are going to play a very important role in Tokyo. It is going to be very hard in hot and humid conditions. It’s a great chance for India to finish among medals. This is the most open men’s hockey tournament in the last five Olympics. There is no clear favourite.
Rani has been an inspirational leader. How important is her role in the women’s team?
Rani Rampal has seen it all. She made her debut as a 15-year-old. She is not by any means the oldest player in the team in terms of age, but in terms of experience definitely. She is a great leader, also an incredible goal scorer under pressure. Her most important goal was which got India into the Olympics, the winner in the second leg versus USA in Bhubaneswar. She cannot do it alone. Gurjit Kaur needs to score from penalty corners.
You are working with Olympic Gold Quest. How many Olympic-bound athletes are backed by OGQ. How do you see India faring at the Tokyo Games?
Altogether 29 athletes supported by OGQ across eight disciplines have qualified for the Olympics. They include Mary Kom, Amit Panghal, Manish Kaushik, Lovlina Borgohain, Vinesh Phogat, Deepak Punia, Mirabai Chanu, the whole archery team and others. There is good potential. The Government, Sports Authority of India, Target Olympic Podium Scheme, National Sports Federations and NGOs have worked together.