NEW DELHI: The sports of football and hockey have been making rapid progress in India, and a key factor in both sports moving forward together has been the support from the Government of Odisha.
In a candid chat on AIFF TV hosted by women's National Team keeper Aditi Chauhan prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian Men's National Hockey team custodian Sreejesh PR referred to Odisha as his team's “second home” and hailed the State Government's contribution towards developing sports in the country.
"The world today knows Odisha as the hub of sports. It’s a super sports hub. When we train in Odisha, it feels like our second home. Nowadays if you ask kids in Odisha, they don’t want to be IAS Officers or get government jobs. All of them want to play sports because they have now seen that you can have good things through sports,” Sreejesh, the wall under the Indian hockey goalpost, opined.
The Indian Men’s hockey team made it to the semi-finals of the ongoing Tokyo Olympics and are slated to meet Belgium tomorrow (August 3) in the first semi-final. The Indian women's team created history as well, defeating Australia today (August 2) to seal their berth in the last four for the first time ever.
"Recently, the Odisha Government promised Rs 6 crore to medal winners in the Olympics -- that’s huge. They are also developing 14 new astro-turfs in Odisha, which is immense. Other states should look at Odisha as an example. If Odisha can do it, they can follow the Odisha model too and go forward," Sreejesh stated.
In February 2018, the Government of Odisha became sponsors of the Indian hockey teams in a landmark occasion and in the same year, the AIFF entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the State Government after which it has played hosts to a number of National Team camps, Hero I-League matches and international tournaments.
The year also saw Bhubaneswar host the FIH Men's Hockey World Cup, which saw large crowds attend the matches and create an unforgettable atmosphere. Sreejesh recollected how playing in front of the home fans energized the whole team and stated that he is looking forward to India hosting the AFC Women's Asian Cup next year as well.
"There’s always a positive and a negative side to playing at home. If you think about results all the time, then the negative aspect takes over. But, if you think that the crowd is there to help, then each individual cheer gives you energy."
"We had the World Cup in Bhubaneswar and we lost a match in the group stage. Despite the loss the entire stadium stood up and cheered for us. We were like, “Wow! We are ready to give everything for these fans.” So, don’t worry about the crowd. They will be the 12th man for you and help the team positively," Sreejesh, an Arjuna Awardee and Padma Shri recipient, averred.
The veteran goalkeeper, with over 200 international caps to his name, hails from Kerala and has often spoken about his love for football in the past. During the live chat, he mentioned how he draws inspiration from Blue Tigers skipper Sunil Chhetri.
"I like Sunil Chhetri a lot. The fact that he’s the captain is secondary. He’s a very determined player and what he has been doing over all these years for the National Team and his club -- it has been truly wonderful," he stated.
When asked about his favourite players, he quipped, "When it comes to the Men’s team, I must go with Gurpreet (goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu), and you (Aditi Chauhan) in the women’s team."
Regarded widely as one of the best goalkeepers to have ever graced the hockey turf, Sreejesh delved into the technicalities of his craft and explained in detail his techniques and the similarities and differences in comparison to football. He referred to his protective equipment as his “second skin” and offered great insights into his thought process during pressure situations such as penalty shootouts.
"It’s almost been 21 years that I’ve been wearing all the gear on the pitch. It's almost become my second skin now. Initially, it was a bit difficult to adjust, but now it's easy. If you keep training, it becomes second nature. Once you start getting the feel of making saves, then it gets into your head – yeah, I can do this," he shared.
"The major objective for me in penalty shootouts is to kill time. You literally need to be a monkey and do whatever you can to run the clock down. But at the same time, you also need to focus and analyse what the attacker is going to do. I do check up on potential attackers before the match, but not too much because in those eight seconds, it all comes down to the reaction. You don’t commit to a save. You wait for them to commit to a move and then take action accordingly. Studying players from before is fine for spot-kicks, but this is different. The attacker can change track at any time. I just try to follow the ball and kill time."