Bhubaneswar: When Pakistan last played a hockey match in the Odisha capital, the South Stand of the Kalinga Stadium didn't exist. On Saturday, the local crowd showed the changes are more concrete than they appear.
At the Champions Trophy semi-final in 2014, after they had beaten India 4-3, some Pakistani players " allegedly unprovoked " took off their shirts and made obscene gestures at the packed East Stand. Hockey India pulled its weight and no Pakistani hockey team visited India until this World Cup, not even in the Junior World Cup held a couple of years back.
However, it was the warmest welcome they could have imagined on Saturday, as a sizeable crowd cheered the neighbours in a tidal wave of sound and euphoria.
Pakistan's manager Hassan Sardar and captain Muhammad Rizwan Sr have made all the right noises since they landed here, almost extending an olive branch to the Indians. "We want to treat Indians to some good hockey. They have always loved us and the sport," Sardar had said. Pakistan coach and an accomplished forward of his time, Rehan Butt, too had suggested that it's time to move on from that incident.
Finally, it was Bhubaneswar's chance to respond, and respond they did. Each touch on the ball by a Green Shirt, every move from the flank, and every shot in the German circle was applauded. What's more, there were chants of 'jeetega bhai jeetega, Pakistan jeetega' (a familiar slogan that Pakistani fans use to cheer their teams) from the South Stand. The chants grew louder each time a Pakistani defender approached that end, and it helped that the German goalpost stood right underneath that Stand in the first half.
"Our reception in India has been excellent, and the crowd response was terrific. I really appreciate their response, and it was nice to see so many people turn up for a non-India game," Sardar told Firstpost.
Political tension between the two nations have ensured India and Pakistan continue to avoid bilateral engagements across sports, with a number of Pakistani artists being refused Indian visas in recent past. Even for this World Cup, some Pakistani sports journalists were denied visas to cover the event.
Sardar, the architect of Pakistan's famous Asian Games (Delhi) and World Cup (Bombay) wins in 1982, said India have always been receptive to good hockey.
"I still remember 1982. I was the key player who helped Pakistan beat India in both those events, but the love we got from the crowd was incredible. They simply loved us, and they appreciated good hockey. Of course, during the match, they cheered for India, but after the match, we were treated really well.
"I still remember the Asian Games final where we beat India 7-1 in Delhi. After the final, we went to local bazaars, but the shopkeepers didn't charge us a penny," Sardar said.
Pakistan hockey player Muhammad Irfan also lauded the crowd for their consistent support despite a 1-0 result in Germany's favour.
"I would really like to thank them. It was a memorable experience playing here, and ever since we have landed here, the people of India have shown us immense love. Inshallah, we will get similar support in future games," he said.
Pakistan's head coach Tauquir Dar, who, along with his team had visited a local mosque to offer Friday prayers, also praised the fans.
"It's been a dream landing for us in Bhubaneswar. The hospitality has been very warm and the crowd was cheering for us, which was very motivating for the players. We will hope to treat them with some good hockey," he said.
Bhubaneswar's response to the Pakistani players was in sharp contrast to the Champions Trophy final in 2014, played days after that incident of crowd trouble. Then, the team was booed even as Pakistan's national anthem was being played, and the crowd became Germany's 12th man, who coasted to a 2-0 win.
All that, however, seems to be a thing of past now. If the opening ceremony of the event was a throwback to the one that Delhi hosted eight years back for the Commonwealth Games " where Pakistani contingent received the loudest applause after India " Saturday showed that sport doesn't really need jingoism to sustain itself.