When the going gets tough, the tough get going. For India goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, the tough Asian Games hockey match for gold against arch-rivals Pakistan brought out the best in him. This, despite the high stakes and a vociferous Pakistani crowd continuously chanting, “Pakistan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad.”
India defeated Pakistan in a thrilling penalty shootout to win an Asian Games gold after 16 years. Sreejesh emerged as the hero when he denied Pakistan twice in the nerve-wracking shootout. “Pakistan fans definitely outnumbered Indians during the match there (Incheon). Chants of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ were echoing all over but these chants in fact, helped me in becoming more alert,” he told.
“A match against Pakistan is never an easy prospect – especially for goalkeepers in a penalty shootout. We can either become heroes or zeroes,” Sreejesh said.
Known for his passion for hockey and his patriotic fervor, 26-year-old Sreejesh admitted that the match for gold was more than just a hockey encounter. “Pakistan are definitely our main rivals. We do respect the players but on the field, we push ourselves even harder to get that win. I am sure they do the same against us. Victory against them has a special meaning,” he said. “All through the match, I kept telling myself: ‘Come on Sreejesh, hold on, hold on.’ And it worked.”
While expectations had reached astronomical proportions, Sreejesh said he relied on his years of experience to guard the Indian goal. “Having played at this level for years, I was able to keep my nerves. I am not sure a young goalkeeper would have managed to keep the penalty shots out, considering the loud cheer that each of them came with. But that’s the way it is – goalkeepers are like wine and improve with years.”
Success in a crucial penalty shootout however is not just about keeping calm and trusting instincts. Sreejesh had to earn the accolades and prepared hard ahead of the match. “Before the final, I watched the video clips of the Pakistan’s victory in the semi-final against Malaysia as part of my preparation. That helped me a lot in understanding how our rival’s strikers move and which angle they look to create goal during the shootout,” said Sreejesh.