LONDON – India star Sandeep Singh, who was once almost paralysed by a stray bullet, said hockey would have died in the country if his team had missed out on a second successive Olympics.
India have won eight Olympic field hockey gold medals, but the last of their triumphs came in 1980.
They failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games, a shattering disappointment that 26-year-old Sandeep admitted on Saturday could have been fatal to the sport.
“If we didn’t qualify this time, Indian hockey could have stopped like the dinosaur,” said star drag flicker Sandeep.
“Nobody can see dinosaurs now and it could have been the same thing with Indian hockey if we didn’t qualify. So, we did a lot of hard work, training, new things and after that we qualified.”
Sandeep scored five goals in the 8-1 play-off win over France which secured Olympic qualification.
But he knows he is still lucky to be playing at all after suffering a serious injury when he was accidentally shot in the back while travelling on a train in India in August 2006.
“I spent eight or nine hours (in the hospital) to check where the bullet was. After that the doctor said I could not walk, couldn’t play any more hockey,” he said.
“It was a very difficult time for me, just with my family and close friends. Some people turned their backs on me, didn’t help me in my bad time.
“When I think about that time, I feel that’s the worst time of my life, but I learned a lot of things. I felt a lot of pain and after that if I got any injury during a match it felt nothing like the pain I had from the bullet.”
India have been drawn with defending champions Germany, South Korea, New Zealand, Belgium and the Netherlands in Pool B of the group stage of the tournament at the Olympics.
Sandeep will be key, but he is keen to play down his chances.
“I am not thinking that I am the best (flicker), I just try to learn new things every day,” he said.
“I never think about the heroes of the drag flick because I don’t want to become only the drag flicker.
“I want to become a complete hockey player, because if you’re just a drag flicker, sometimes you will be out of the team because you’re not performing well. My target is to score in every match and every crucial moment.”
Meanwhile, goalkeeper and captain Bharat Chetri played down the fact that India’s squad is the youngest in the men’s tournament.
“We have two players who are Olympians and the rest of the players are new,” said Chetri.
“It’s an advantage for us because in modern hockey you need to run fast, you need quick legs and because of that we have three or four new players and they are very good.”
On captaining India at the Games, he added: “I have been playing for the Indian team for the last 12 years, but it’s the first time I got a chance to play at the Olympics and as captain, so I am very happy and my family is very happy.”
He also believes London could be lucky for India just as it was in 1948 when his country won Olympic hockey gold in the city.
“In 1948 in London we won the gold medal, so now we have come to London again and our dream is to rewrite that history of what our old players did here,” he said.