CHENNAI: ROMANCE. No word describes hockey better in this country. It gives Indians belief, teaches them to hope and instills in them the courage to dream, no matter how outrageous. It is our beautiful game and means to us, what football means to Brazil.
Back when an entire country, freshly freed from colonial shackles was still pondering what it meant to be Indian, the sticks of Dhyan Chand and Balbir Singh Sr had given us a sporting identity. It is an identity that has since defined us on the sport's greatest stage.
When the 18 men led by Manpreet Singh yelled and fell to their knees at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, that noise reverberated across the country in unison. India had beaten Germany 5-4 in the bronze medal play-off. A medal, whatever colour it may be, has its own place in history.
This is a sport that has paid its dues many times over, through thousands of moments of anguish and heartbreak. A no-show in 2008 was followed by 12th in 2012 and eighth in Rio. Every edition, India would enter the Olympics with hopes of recapturing lost glory.
They would return to India with the same message - we were not good enough. After every Summer Games, the memory of that eighth and final gold at Moscow in 1980 would fade more.
A majority of us were not born when India won its first gold in 1928. None of those who played on Thursday were born in 1980. All they had were stories. The legend of hockey was trapped in those sepia-tinged photographs in museums or family albums of players.
Generational players like Dhyan Chand, Balbir Singh (Sr and Jr), Roop Singh, Leslie Claudius, Mohammed Shahid and V Baskaran are names still uttered with reverence. The golden years faded into darkness. Hope morphed into despair.
But after 41 years, there is finally light and the romance has been rekindled. This medal is that bridge between the old and the new, between grass and astro-turf. It was only made possible by a fusion of raw talent and modern scientific training. There is also fusion within the squad, where there is a healthy mix of experience and youth.
If Rupinder Pal Singh and PR Sreejesh are the elder statesmen, Dilpreet Singh and Vivek Sagar Prasad are the young tyros. That eight of the 19 here took part and won in the junior World Cup is reflective of the talent. They are now ready to define the sport through their prisms.
And just like hockey defined us in the early years when we were struggling to do so ourselves, it now symbolises the journey that a rising nation is on. Its romance will once again seep deep into villages, chawls, dhabas, coffee shops - everywhere there’s a shard of India's soul.
Every individual in this team would have silently endured unfathomable hardship to reach where they are. Systematic training, stability in Hockey India after years of disputes, modern coaching and training techniques and better support staff, all went into the making of this team.
The pandemic brought misery with many players, including captain Manpreet Singh, infected. Months of lockdown and spending hours within their rooms, hardly speaking to anyone but their teammates and staying away from families and friends... they endured those challenges with aplomb. Sacrifices made, while breathing and living only hockey.
PR Sreejesh, Dilpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Hardik Singh, Surender Kumar, Gurjant Singh, Manpreet Singh (C), Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay, Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma, Shamsher Singh, Varun Kumar, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Vivek Prasad - they may not be remembered as legends of the game.
But when this fresh start ends in another emphatic golden moment, they will definitely be etched in the memory as the ones who sparked a revolution, the bunch who returned to Indian hockey its ability to dream.