Exclusive: This medal will inspire youngsters to play hockey, says Sreejesh
PR Sreejesh believes India could achieve more on the world stage if they follow the example set by Belgium
It’s been three weeks since PR Sreejesh walked into the Indian hockey folklore when his stunning last-ditch reflex save ended the country’s 41-year Olympic medal drought.
Twenty days after the 33-year-old goalkeeper wore the bronze medal around his neck, smiling and hugging his teammates on the podium after breaking German hearts, Sreejesh was still in his Indian jersey and smiling from ear to ear when Khaleej Times interviewed him through a Zoom video call.
Having made his senior debut 15 years ago, Sreejesh finally fulfilled his dream of winning an Olympic medal in Tokyo.
During the interview with Khaleej Times, Sreejesh said the bronze medal is only a start as he believes India could achieve more on the world stage if they follow the example set by Belgium.
Following your outstanding performance in Tokyo, you have been short-listed by FIH (Fédération Internationale de Hockey) for the best goalkeeper of the year award. It must be a very proud moment for you...
I think it’s my third nomination (overall). I mean the FIH have nominated your name for the world’s best goalkeeper award, that’s definitely a great honour. I think this will motivate a lot of youngsters in hockey to take up goalkeeping. Everyone is hesitant to become a goalkeeper because you are hiding behind the (helmet) visors. So, personally, for me, it’s a great honour and I believe this will inspire a lot of youngsters to become goalkeepers.
India fell back in love with hockey, thanks to the bronze medal as well as the stunning run to the semifinal by the women’s team...
The women’s team’s performance was marvellous. The performance they showcased in the quarterfinal against Australia, the world number two, to get into the semifinals, will inspire millions of Indian girls to pick up hockey sticks. These girls have become an example for them that you can become an Olympic star and even win a medal for your country in future. And for us, winning the bronze medal was wonderful and Indian hockey badly needed it on the world stage. Now the expectations will be really high. Everybody in the team is looking forward to the 2023 World Cup which will be held in Bhuvneshwar (India). To be honest, (after beating Germany) in Tokyo we didn’t know what we did exactly for Indian hockey. But when we landed in Delhi after the Olympics, we realised that we changed the face of Indian hockey. I think this medal is the start. This is an inspiration, this medal gives inspiration to youngsters to dream big, and you know, winning an Olympic medal is now a real thing. So tomorrow, when they go to the Olympics, they will feel like, yes, last time, we won a medal, this time we need to change the colour. So I really believe that this will inspire millions to pick up a hockey stick.
After so many failures at the World Cups and the Olympics in the last four decades, what was the key to the success in Tokyo? Was it tactical or mental?
I think both. You can’t win a match just because of the tactical things. You need to have mental support as well. It did not start one or two years back. It’s been a long journey. I think the revolution started in 2008 when we got our first foreign coach, José Brasa. Since then a lot of foreign coaches have contributed to Indian hockey. And the professional hockey league also brought a lot of global hockey stars to India. Those stars helped our youngsters and these youngsters are now a part of the Indian team. When the game starts to entertain the young generation, then you get more talent at the grassroots level and that makes the national team strong. I think that’s how we transformed Indian hockey from that phase to this bronze medal stage.
You are 33 now. You have played over 200 matches for India. How long can you continue?
I made my junior India debut in 2004, almost 17 years ago. Then I made my senior debut in 2006, that’s almost 15 years. I can tell you my history, but I can’t explain how long I am going to play. If you are playing well, and if you are healthy and fit, then definitely, you can play as long as you want. So I am dreaming about playing in the next World Cup, which is very important for us. Also, I would like to keep a short-term goal. So my next target is going to be the World Cup, and from there, definitely, Paris (2024 Olympics).
What can India learn from Belgium? The Belgians never had a world-class hockey team until 10 years ago and now they are dominating the sport, having won silver in Rio (2016), gold in Tokyo (2020) and the World Cup title in 2018. Has their remarkable rise inspired you?
Definitely, because, you know, the run of the Australian team from 2002 to 2012 (2002-2014, two World Cup titles and one Olympic gold), and the Belgium team from 2016 until now, that’s a process. That means the team is following one system and allowing the same group of players to play for a long time. Australia carried the same team for a long time and they ruled the world. Now Belgium is following the same system. If you look at the Belgium team, their players are holding more than 300 caps. So that gives them the confidence because they are all experienced players, they know what kind of pressure they have to face during an Olympic or a World Cup. And they are trusting their own game. So it’s important for us as well to focus on that. We should not keep on changing the team and we should not change the plans in between. You need to stick to one plan and you need to stick to the same system. If that happens, in the next four-five, we will be at the same level as Belgium.
Who is your biggest hero in life?
My father is my hero. He is a farmer and he works really hard to support the family. Every morning he wakes up and goes to the paddy field, he works really hard, he comes back and he never complains. He always had that thing in his mind that he needed to work really hard to take care of his family, so that mentality came into me and I also did the same thing. When I train, I feel tired sometimes, I feel like giving up, but then I remember my father who never gave up. He inspired me a lot and because of that I never gave up and I keep on working hard. I have worked hard for the last 21 years and today I got the result.
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