If there is one sport that India can say it has dominated, it is hockey. There have been not one, but two periods when Indian hockey experienced its golden period. One was during the 1930s, and the other was in the 1950s. On both occasions, India had won three consecutive gold medals in the sport at The Games. Probably what makes the later period more impressive is the fact that even after losing their crown at the 1960 Games to arch rivals Pakistan, the Indian team won it right back in 1964. Since then, Indian hockey has been inconsistent to say the least. They often fell short of their medal aspirations. As a result, expectations were not exactly high.
Ever since the ’64 gold, it was becoming more and more evident that the Indian hockey side was no longer that big a threat. They could not just blow their opposition away like they used to do in the past. At the 1968 Games, the team won their first-ever bronze medal in the sport. They had only dealt in golds and silvers until that point. People might have expected a different story at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but nothing changed. The best the nation could do was a bronze medal. That, in itself, is a great achievement, but considering the nation’s record in the sport, fans wanted more and that is understandable.
However, they might have been on course that year to a greater prize. A tragedy had unfolded at The Games that year which drastically affected the players’ mental health and had an impact on the side’s performances on the pitch. What had happened was a horrific attack on athletes from Israel that saw 11 Israeli athletes as well as a German police officer losing their lives. The incident had halted The Games for a couple of days and something like this would have a negative impact on anyone.
Ahead of the 1972 Games, the Indian squad was one that was ageing. The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), as a result, decided to send a rather young team to compete at The Games that year. They still retained a few of the veterans but most of the squad bore a young look. The veterans in the side included the likes of Perumal Krishnamurthy, Harbinder Singh, Ajit Singh, and Harmek Singh. Harmek was also named captain of the side.
The team, however, had some of the biggest names in the history of Indian hockey in its coaching staff. The skipper of the 1952 Olympic gold medal winning side KD Singh Babu was named the coach of the team. Two-time Olympic gold-medallist Keshav Dutt was named the manager of the side.
There was a lot of talent in the younger players of the team as well. The side included the likes of Ashok Kumar, son of arguably India’s greatest ever hockey player Dhyan Chand, and tennis star Leander Paes’ father, Vece Paes. It really was kind of like one big sporting family.
However, at the time, the team was new, and it was crucial that the players got to know each other before they could start training for the Games. KD Singh Babu, therefore, organized a few national camps at Lucknow and Jalandhar. The members spent more than two months preparing for the 1972 Olympics. The team’s striker at the time, MP Ganesh, said that they were all in great spirits at the camps.
“We had a great mix of youngsters and experienced players in that side,” he said on a Sony TV show. “It was a talented team and we were all in great spirits at the national camps. We had a lot of belief in our abilities,” he added.
India was drawn in a rather challenging group on paper at the time. They were part of Group B alongside the likes of Netherlands, Australia, Great Britain, Poland, Kenya and New Zealand. The Indian team put up an outstanding performance in the group stage and finished unbeaten. However, it was not a 100% record. They drew 1-1 with Holland and followed it up with two consecutive victories against Great Britain and Australia. Striker Mukhbain Singh scored an incredible hat-trick in the 3-1 victory over the Aussies. The side then drew 2-2 against Poland and then won both of their final two group games against Kenya and New Zealand.
The team was scheduled to face arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-finals. However, it was before this match that tragedy struck. The Israeli Olympics team was attacked and 11 members lost their lives. The incident forced the organizers to halt the Olympics for a couple of days. It was this extra gap and the mental toll the attack would have taken on the Indian side that ultimately broke their rhythm going into the Pakistan game. “It happened just before the semi-finals and that was when we lost our rhythm as a team,” said MP Ganesh.
The semi-final ended with Pakistan emerging victorious over India by a scoreline of 2-0.
All was not lost for the Indians however. Not yet. While the prize might not be as prestigious as a gold medal, a bronze medal is still an incredible achievement. They would have to overcome the Dutch test to achieve it. The Netherlands was one of the sides that had held India to a 1-1 draw in the group stages.
The match did not begin the way how the Indians would have wanted it. Within six minutes, the men in orange took the lead through a Ties Kruize strike. However, the Indians were not going to waste any time to get the game back on level terms. They had come really close to winning an Olympic medal, and they would not allow the opportunity to slip away. The Indian team started piling on the attack, and nine minutes later, reaped the rewards. BP Govinda leveled up the score in the 15th minute. The match was an end-to-end affair and it seemed like it would not be decided in regulation time. That was not, however, what Mukhbain Singh had in mind. In the last minute of the game, the forward scored the winner and handed India the bronze medal.
While it might not be as prestigious as a gold medal, the 1972 bronze felt special. From the heartbreak of losing to their arch-rivals in the semi-final, to a brilliant late winner to clinch a bronze medal, the team had recovered quite well. The Indian team was praised when they got back home and deservedly so.