Coming into the 2014 Asian Games, the Indian men’s hockey team was a mixed bag.
India had suffered a heartbreak when they couldn’t qualify for the Beijing 2008 Olympics but won silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. They also made it to the 2012 London Games but finished last.
No longer was Indian hockey the dominating force in Asia, let alone the world.
All that changed at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea though. India beat archrivals Pakistan 4-2 in a shootout to clinch the gold medal, a victory which signalled their rebirth as the best hockey team in Asia.
Veteran winger SV Sunil was a key part of the victorious Indian hockey team and he considers the final to be the greatest match he has been a part of.
“I think that tournament would be at the top of my favourites list for the team. That final against Pakistan is the most memorable night for me, personally,” SV Sunil told the Olympic Channel.
There was already a lot of anticipation at the 2014 Asian Games when both India and Pakistan were drawn in Group B in the preliminary stages.
The Indian hockey team began with a flourish, blanking Sri Lanka 8-0 and Oman 7-0 in its first two group games.
The third game provided all the drama as India took on Pakistan in a battle for supremacy in the group. India ended up losing 2-1 to cede top spot.
It was a tough loss, but it also helped motivate the team.
“After that match, all of us became even more determined to go all the way and win gold in the tournament,” stated SV Sunil.
The Indian hockey team quickly regrouped to beat China 2-0 in its final league game and qualify for the semi-finals, where India would play hosts South Korea.
A solitary goal from Akashdeep Singh helped India win 1-0 and seal a spot in the final.
Meanwhile, Pakistan had won all their group games and had their first real scare in the semis against Malaysia, which they eventually won 6-5 in a shootout.
The stage was all set for an iconic India vs Pakistan clash – two teams with a rich history in the sport - in the final. It was also the first time that the teams would face each other in an Asian Games final since 1966.
“It was our first Asian Games final after 16 years (since winning in 1998) and we wanted to take home that gold medal. It would also give us our ticket to Rio 2016,” recalled SV Sunil.
A heroic performance
The final began in the worst possible fashion for India after Mohammad Rizwan put Pakistan ahead in just the third minute.
“In a big tournament, not everything will go according to plan. We had to be prepared for anything and we had practiced well, playing out scenarios and adapted well to the match situation then,” said the winger.
It was a high-tempo clash from thereon, with both sides creating chances and late in the first quarter, SV Sunil himself missed a gilt-edged chance to get India level.
Both goalkeepers – India’s PR Sreejesh and Pakistan’s Imran Butt - were then at the top of their game to thwart the respective attackers and forced a shootout.
It only added to the palpable tension at the Seonhak Hockey Stadium in Incheon.
India went ahead as Akashdeep Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh converted the first two attempts while Pakistan’s Abdul Haseem Khan’s attempt was saved by PR Sreejesh but Muhammad Waqas then scored to make it to 2-1.
Manpreet Singh then missed the third attempt, giving Pakistan an opening to level things up.
However, PR Sreejesh was quick off his line and then swept away Muhammad Umar Bhutta’s shot to keep India’s lead. It would prove to be the most important save of the night.
Birendra Lakra then put India ahead 3-1 but Pakistan’s Shafqat Rasool soon made it 3-2.
India’s Dharamvir Singh then confidently blocked the goalkeeper’s vision and slapped his shot into the frame to give the Indian hockey team its first Asian Games gold medal in 16 years.
“When Dharamvir scored that attempt, it was a moment of pure happiness because we had emerged on top after a neck-to-neck fight,” revealed SV Sunil.
It would also prove to be a defining moment for PR Sreejesh, who had once again come out on top in a major final against Pakistan after the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy which started his career.
“We showed incredible maturity to come back in that match. We did really well after that point too, we reached the Champions Trophy final in 2016 but lost to Australia in a shootout and also reached the quarter-finals at Rio,” he added.
“It was an enjoyable period for us.”
That event sparked an upturn in form for the Indian men’s hockey team as it won bronze at the 2018 Asian Games and reached a best-ever fourth in the FIH World Rankings.
India has also performed well at the FIH Pro League and will arrive at Tokyo 2020 as one of the medal favourites.