VR Raghunath smiled for the cameras as he collected his Arjuna Award from the President of India on Tuesday afternoon. The bronze trophy was a justified reward for a seven-year long career that has made the defender an Asian Games gold medalist, a multiple medalist at the Commonwealth Games, Hockey World League and Champions Trophy as well as an Olympian twice over.
However, even as the 27-year-old received his sporting honour, Raghunath admits the moment is bittersweet. On the face of it the Indian team failed to live up to their pre-Olympic rankings, losing in the quarterfinal despite going in ranked 5th in the world. However they definitely had their moments. They were were level with both Germany and Holland in the group stages before eventually conceding decisive goals in the final moments of the match.
They were also the only team to beat eventual champions Argentina. In the quarterfinal, they took the early lead against Belgium before losing to the silver medalists. “It was strange after we lost in the quarterfinals. We felt we had more energy to give. The tournament didn’t feel complete. We wanted to give more opportunities to our players but we didn’t get that chance.”
What hurt the team even more feels Raghunath was the feeling that they had it in them to reach the last four and perhaps compete for a medal. “ We weren’t afraid of playing Belgium. We had played them four times and won and lost the same number of games. Over the last couple of years, ours was a team that had consistently placed in the top 3. (As silver medals in the 2015 World League and 2016 Champions Trophy would suggest) We were confident that we would have made the semifinals here too,” he shrugs.
Raghunath isn’t a big fan of hindsight. He doesn’t believe that the team lost momentum after drawing their final game against Canada or fell away after scoring early in the quarterfinal. “I don’t know what we might have done differently in the quarterfinal against Belgium. I guess we could have scored another goal. Things might have been different then. But we had our chances and just did not take them and Belgium did. You cant make excuses for that,” he says.
And while India’s Olympic dreams may have come to an end in that game, Raghunath feels the team did the best they could. “I can’t fault the way our team prepared for this Olympics. Everyone was involved and gave it their best. When we were preparing, there were few off days and we didn’t take a single night off. Our training was systematic. We had the same core group of 33 and we ensured we didn’t play the same players constantly. That way the players who went into the Olympics were not fatigued,” he says.
Blueprint for success
Raghunath believes the Indian team has created the blueprint for success. He points to coach Roelant Oltman’s policy of creating multiple captains.
“By making a number of players captains, coach ensured that in each department one of us was taking responsibility and pushing the others forward,” he says.
And while the team may have slipped a place in the rankings, Raghunath believes this is only a temporary aberration. And while the World Cup is two years away, he believes the team has what it takes to make the podium. “The kind of tempo the the team has right now is something else. We have a strong group of players who will take India to the next level. We will be in the top three at the world Cup is something I don’t doubt.”