JULY 29, 1980: Mumbai's MM Somaya relives India's gold medal at Moscow Olympics

HOCKEY, like all other disciplines, was adversely impacted by the US-led boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games. Due to the absence of many leading teams, it was widely believed that India just needed to turn up in Moscow to win the men's hockey gold. Circumstances had pitchforked me into the Indian team for the first time. In jest, my friends suggested the team seek asylum in a safe haven abroad in case we fell short!

Coach Balkrishn Singh had put the team through the wringer in a training camp at Bangalore. Gravel grounds that were hard and fast had been prepared for our training sessions. With no artificial surface in India, these gravel grounds came closest to polygrass, which was the surface to play on in Moscow. A systematic conditioning program ensured that the team were fit and raring to go.

Home-cooked food

Reaching Moscow a fortnight in advance gave the team a chance to acclimatise. Our team manager Mr Dayanand, a kind and affable soul, ensured the Indian embassy arranged home-cooked food, which was like manna for a few of our players. Others like me, preferred the bountiful offerings at the Village cafeteria. To befriend the local populace, it was important that we picked up a few Russian words. 'Dobrayo utro' or 'good morning' became the trending words in the team. As new words got added to our vocabulary every day, familiarity with people grew and the team felt relaxed. In fact, I had graduated to the next level and mastered 'Krasivaya Devushka' or 'beautiful girl'! But the fear of a surveillance state and the lurking KGB restrained me from using them!

MM Somaya with his 1980 Olympic gold medal at his Worli residence yesterdayMM Somaya with his 1980 Olympic gold medal at his Worli residence yesterday

Soon, the Games were upon us and the Opening Ceremony was a resplendent affair. The world was introduced to Misha, the friendly Russian bear, which was the endearing
mascot.

Hockey was a round-robin format with the top two teams to play a final match. After an easy opener against Tanzania, we faced Poland in the second match. A last-gasp goal by Mervyn Fernandes pulled us up to a 2-2 draw. In the next match against Spain, we were again bailed out by a late equalising goal from Surinder Sodhi. The sheer tenacity of the European style of play had rocked us, but it made the team more determined. The composure shown during critical moments in both these games enhanced confidence levels.

Spain topped the pool and were through to the final. Soviet Union and India being equal on points, were locked in the last league match for a place in the gold medal game. Soviet Union, a rising team in Europe, were to be runners-up to Netherlands in the next edition of the Continents Cup. In home conditions, they fancied their chances against us. Skipper Leonid Pavolovski used to have a commanding presence in their defence and Sergei Pleshakov was a powerful centre-forward with a loping stride. In line with our game plan, captain Vasudevan Bhaskaran and the rest of our defence kept Pleshakov under a tight leash while our frontline chipped away at their defence. A resounding 4-2 win saw us romp into the final.

A scene from the Opening Ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympics at Lenin Stadium. pic/getty imagesA scene from the Opening Ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympics at Lenin Stadium. Pic/getty images

The gold medal match pitted two of the best coaches in world hockey against each other. German-born Horst Wein was a coaching legend, having coached Spain to victory in the European Cup. He later also worked with football teams like FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. India's Balkrishen Singh had worked with the Australian women's team and was hailed for his tactical prowess in that country. He had also coached India's medal-winning Olympic team in 1968. The final match-up was going to be hockey's version of Arsene Wenger v Sir Alex Ferguson.

As we entered the Dynamo Stadium for the Olympic final, the excitement was palpable. The vociferous cheering of our women's hockey team and the rest of the Indian contingent reached a crescendo. In a section of the stadium, where the Spanish supporters were seated, 'Espania Ariba Ariba' rent the air. In our team huddle, skipper Bhaskaran geed up the troops with his inspiring pep talk. Then Sodhi led with our war cry 'Jo Bole So Nihal' and we all chorused 'Sat Sri Akal.' As we sprinted off to our positions, the adrenaline was truly pumping. The rattle of the drums and roar of the crowd put us in the zone that all sportspersons yearn to be.

The cover of The Sportstar magazine which featured the triumph
The cover of The Sportstar magazine which featured the triumph

Balkrishen had decided to adopt a more attacking approach as compared to our league match. The frontline of [Maharaj Krishan] Kaushik, Mervyn, Sodhi, [Mohammed] Shahid and Zafar [Iqbal] were shorn of most defensive duties so that they could attack at will. The midfield and defence were to lay deep and watch for that long, rangy pass and the typical European sucker punch. The results were remarkable. We notched up a 3-0 lead with the game well into the second half.

Tense moments

However, with around 20 minutes to play, Wein launched the Spanish armada at us. Wave after wave of attacks put us on the back foot. Two penalty corner goals by Juan Amat shook us out of our complacency and we hit back with a goal from Shahid. With five minutes to go, they scored their third. At 4-3 the match could have gone either way. I recall the agonising last five minutes with our goal under serious threat. Some critical interceptions by Bhaskaran and resolute tackles by Dung Dung saved the day for us. We huffed and puffed our way to the gold!

After the ceremonial pageantry, we headed back to the Games Village. In the safe confines of our room and amid the revelry, I was introduced to something called Vodka by my senior teammates. They said that it would immediately rejuvenate me and I unsuspectingly imbued copious quantities of the colourless liquid. Rejuvenating it certainly was, but it also induced sleep. I surfaced only the next afternoon and realised that I had slept in my playing kit with medal strapped firmly around my neck!
Four decades down, India still seeks an Olympic gold medal in hockey. We are closer now than ever before. Today's team are supremely fit and fully equipped with skill sets for modern hockey. Versatility of players enables the team to seamlessly change formations based on match situations. The rolling substitution rule has fuelled consistent results with players performing at peak levels throughout tournaments.

A page from Sportsworld magazine which covered the win
A page from Sportsworld magazine which covered the win

In our quest for an Olympic gold, two factors will need careful attention. Firstly, we need to raise our play in crunch situations of key matches. For this, our skills at goalkeeping and goalscoring would need to be razor sharp. Secondly, concentration levels and match awareness of players towards end of matches should be just as high as they are at the start. If we are able to address these two key issues, a win at the Tokyo Olympics is eminently possible.

On the 40th anniversary of our Olympic victory, I would like to wish skipper Bhaskaran and all my former teammates good health.

And as we wear the badge of victory with pride, may the memories of Moscow continue to bring smiles.

Road to glory

India @ 1980 Moscow Olympics (July 20-29):
India 18-0 Tanzania
India 2-2 Poland
India 2-2 Spain
India 13-0 Cuba
India 4-2 Soviet Union
Final: India 4-3 Spain

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