In the end, it wouldn’t have been out of place to describe it as the Mahanadi entering and occupying the stands at the Kalinga. Like the surge of the river during the monsoon, the fans, the human equivalent of the river, rose and fell like Odisha’s mighty river in spate. They had come trickling in, not knowing what to expect from an Indian team that bordered on the fickle.
No wins in the Pool stage with just a draw against Australia had relegated them to the bottom of Pool B. And now they faced Belgium, a European power now that they had the Olympic silver medal. Enroute to that Rio Olympic final, they had beaten India 3-1. Even if ‘revenge’ as a description wasn’t in the air, the truth was that in the last eight matches which also included the Rio quarter final, India had beaten Belgium only once. So, the crowd could have been forgiven for riding on hope and a majority did believe India would need a huge slice of luck to beat a team that had already scored eleven goals in three matches. India, on the other hand, had scored only three goals in three matches.
The west stand filled up slowly. The main stand which had the VIPs and expensive tickets took a little time. Slowly, the die-hards sauntered in, the national flag in their hands. Yet, there was an air of resignation. Belgium was too tough. India, it seemed, was trying to come to terms playing under their new coach, Sjoerd Marijne. So, when India scored of Gurjant Singh, the man who has scored in both the semi final and final of the 2016 Junior World Cup, the roar was slightly muted. Too many times, India had scored to let in the equaliser. And then when Harmanpreet Singh flicked in a powerful penalty corner, the crowd was on its feet. Will it be different today? Can they carry the momentum forward? Or will the Belgians spoil India’s party?
There was silence when Belgium scored their first and then death-like stillness when it was 2-2. Every fan’s face at that time probably said ‘I told you so.’ But the roar was spontaneous when Rupinder Pal Singh flicked in another penalty corner. If there was a good breeze blowing, it would have carried all the way down to the Mahanadi and most probably the outer limits of Cuttack. And then another hush fell when Belgium equalised at 3-3.
Fate was conspiring. Destiny was moving towards Belgium. Even on a day when India was playing brilliant hockey, the Belgians were finding that extra to equalise and draw level.
The fans, irrespective of sport, love a thriller. And nothing is a better sight in sport than a shoot-out in hockey. It has become better since the time, penalty strokes were done away with and eight seconds given to a player to beat the opposing goalkeeper.
If the crowd roared after Baccard missed, it fell silent like a sulky lover after Harmanpreet Singh also missed. And then Emmanuel missed but Lalit Upadhyay turned it around by shooting it between the Belgian goalkeeper’s legs. India led and the crowd was going delirious. A huge roar went up when Belgium missed their third. Rupinder Pal scored and the fans danced with gay abandon. A victory was just around the corner. Van Doren made it 1-2. India still held the aces. And when Sumit missed, his push hitting the post with Florent Aubel scoring, the scores were tied at 2-2. It seemed India had allowed Belgium back in. The crowd sat back not able to understand what the heck was happening. They had the match in their pocket and the Belgians had escaped. Akashdeep only needed to score and India were in the clear but he drove the ball a little too faster and the chance was gone. At 2-2, the shoot-out was equal. India had missed the boat. The Belgians had the mental make-up. After all, they were in the Olympic final and not India.
Then sudden death. One chance each and the team which misses takes the flight home. The crowd knew it was now or never. Harmanpreet on the line. It’s a zigzag pattern and then to the tremendous roar, Harmanpreet slots it in. India is 1-0 ahead. It takes a little time for the fans to settle down. Arthur Doren takes it sideways and then suddenly the angle is gone. Chikte has saved.
The roar came in waves. First a few as the fans didn’t realise that it was over and India had won. When the players ran towards Chikte, the crowds bellowed. Like waves, the noise reverberated across the stadium probably reaching every house within a 5km radius. It was enough to announce that India had won. It was that kind of a roar that makes those outside the stadium regret not being there. It’s a din that is matchless in its intensity. A kind of inner growl that grows into a roar reverberating across the stadium walls almost shaking its very foundations.
In the end, it was a classic that every hockey fan of Bhubaneswar or the ‘cradle’ as they call it would remember watching, swaying and shaking with the pure intensity that only a score-line like this can attain―3-3; 2-2; 1-0.