The stadium was overflowing with spectators. Two hockey giants from Asia, India and Pakistan were ready to clinch gold in the final on 23rd October 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics men’s Hockey final.
Soon after the half time within 10 minutes a 21-year-old from Sikh from the Indian Hockey team took the ball from his centre forward position and moved with his utmost pace towards the opponent's half to enter in the D, assisting and passing the ball to his fellow players. While the ball reached in the D, an infringement was called by umpire against Pakistan, which resulted in a penalty corner.
Listen to what happened next from the same player who is now 78 years old.
“We attacked and entered in the D. Suddenly a foul was committed by the Pakistani team and we got a penalty corner. We all were determined to convert this chance. Prithipal Singh took the hit and the goalkeeper was completely beaten. However, when the ball was going inside the goal it hit the leg of the Pakistan’s Captain Manzoor Hussain Atif and we got a penalty stroke,” Harbinder Singh continues to build the suspense.
“Our penalty stroke specialist that time was Mohinder Lal, he took the stroke and we scored a goal. That was the final score and we won the match 1-0. I cannot explain in words the atmosphere that ensued after the win. The whole world rejoiced with us. It was indeed a lifetime moment of what we achieved with this gold especially after our lost supremacy losing in the final of 1960 Olympics,” recalls Singh as memories crowd eagerly.
Singh adds that India could sustain the lead till the last whistle due to the superior performance of Indian goalkeeper Laxman.
“After the goal, Pakistan moved swiftly and received a series of penalty corners. The peerless skills of the legendary goalkeeper Shankar Laxman under the bar defended all the attacker strikes. Once he saved three consecutive rebounds that Pakistan legend Munir Dar played and I can say Laxman indeed saved us the match,” Singh recalls fondly.
Harbinder scored five goals out of 22 goals that India scored in those Olympics. He says that as the baby of the squad at 21 years it was indeed a great motivator to go serve the national team both as a player and a mentor.
Arjuna Awardee, Olympic gold and bronze medalist, he is presently a member of the selection committee of Indian Hockey Team. He still cherishes his moments on and off the field reminiscing through his collection of paper cuttings and album of black and white memories.
“Although we won two bronze medals after Tokyo it only meant standing on the podium for us. We were never considered for any medal except gold in Hockey. Now I can feel how important that bronze medal was for us,” he adds while showing his medals with pride.
The tensed final at Tokyo
According to Harbinder, the final match was almost akin to a war as relations between India and Pakistan had soured during that period of time. Everybody was alert and expected a rough game as in 1962, Pakistan won the Asian Gold and that was a very rough game in which many of our players got injured. Prior to the match in our team meeting, it was decided that if the opposition plays rough we will reply in the same coin. When the game started, I had to take the bull and in that the Pakistan player moved his Hockey Stick on my knee and I somehow saved myself. This rough play continued till 10 minutes until the umpires lined up both the teams and showed us red cards,” he further explains that the match was played in a fast and a sporting manner making it one of the greatest hockey matches of history.
Mohinder Lal predicted the penalty stroke, the previous night to the team
Harbinder shares that at the night just before the match Mohinder Lal predicted a penalty stroke in the final. His prediction rang true and India won.
“On the night before the final, Mohinder declared that he said that we would get a penalty stroke tomorrow and he would take it straight to the height of the net. I asked why you would do so. He explained that the height of the Pakistani goalkeeper is short and he would not be able to stop it. We and two more players laughed at this, however it happened the next day and we won,” he quipped. He has all but praise for Mohinder’s grit, gumption and determination.
The first track suit and studs
Harbinder says that the Indian players got their track suits and studs for the first time at Tokyo. Prior to that, they used to play either barefoot or in the football shoes made of leather which became heavy and unwieldy when it rained. Says he with a laugh, “I got a track suit and a stud shoes from Adidas and I used it in all my Olympic participations in 1964, 1968 and 1972.It was definitely a unique feeling that time to wear the track suit and play with shoes suited for all conditions, explained Harbinder.”
Sardars were favourites in Tokyo
Harbinder added that during the Olympics all the Sardars of the Indian contingent were favourite in the city. TV Channels, schools used to invite the Sardar players and interact with them.
“Once all the Sardars of our squad were called on a local television channel as they wanted to know about us. Even a school called me to interact with the children whom I enjoyed a lot,” he remembers.
Welcome at Delhi Airport after return
When the victorious Indian team reached Delhi Airport, there was a huge crowed at midnight to receive us there. Even in the aeroplane people entered and met the Indian team. Remembering a comment of an American player in the aeroplane he says, “Our flight of Air India was also slated to take the US hockey squad. Looking at the long crowd at airport and in the plane, an American player said, “You win one gold and such a huge crowd converges to receive you. We win hundreds of gold medals and still never get such warm reception. This gold medal is more precious than our hundred gold medals.”
The legend wished the current Indian Hockey team and wished them success to repeat the Tokyo magic once again.