Hockey World Cup Memories: Jagbir Singh remembers hostility and heartbreak in Lahore

Jagbir Singh
Jagbir Singh recounts India's disastrous campaign at the 1990 World Cup in Lahore in Firstpost's Hockey World Cup Memories series.

A former centre-forward, Jagbir Singh represented India in two Olympics (1988, 1992), 1990 World Cup and was an integral part of the national team for a decade. He also played two Asian Games (1986, 1990), the 1989 Asia Cup and Champions trophy. Jagbir spoke to >Shantanu Srivastava.

I played the 1990 Hockey World Cup in Lahore, and the political relations between India and Pakistan were not very good then. The conditions were very hostile for us, and that, I think, was the only reason why we fared so poorly in that event. The team, otherwise, was an excellent unit and didn't lack anything.

After finishing at the bottom of the table in 1986 World Cup, the team showed great character to return to top six (in world rankings) by 1988. In 1989, we played some good series in Europe and were ready and raring to go for the World Cup. However, the situation in Pakistan really turned ugly and it played on our minds, for sure. One of our games was stopped midway due to the crowd's behaviour. Bottles were hurled at us from the stands and we were offered to abandon the game, but our coach Mr MP Gamesh decided that the play must go on. We thought it was not right to allow such outside factors and interference to stop an international game.

I would not say there was not adequate security. The players knew they were safe. But in every big tournament, a player needs the right atmosphere to focus solely on his/her game. That ecosystem was sadly not there in the 1990 World Cup, and we lost four of our five group matches. One match ended in a draw.

We wanted to explore Lahore, but there were clear instructions from the coach not to venture out alone. Even when we moved in groups, there was a heavy security cover with us.

Things were not that bad earlier. Just two years back, in 1988, we had gone there for a series and Pakistan had also come to India for some matches. The bonhomie and reception that we got then was unbelievable. We had gone to Quetta, Karachi, Islamabad, and some other cities, and the hospitality everywhere was just excellent. We played in front of packed houses and Pakistani fans were always eager to meet us. But things changed dramatically in two years.

World Cup is a dream event for any player, and doing well at that stage is the dream of every athlete. Not being able to do that because of factors that were not under our control is something that I regret to this day.

I don't think we struggled because of turf. Post the 1982 Asian Games, almost all our hockey was played on artificial surface. I feel hockey has become more assured and beautiful post the arrival of turf. We couldn't take advantage of this innovation because we didn't have enough turfs in the country. The Europeans had countless of them, while we played domestic hockey on grass. Naturally, we struggled internationally where all competitions were played on astro turf.

We had prepared very well for that World Cup. We had a good young bunch. A lot of us had graduated from the 1985 Junior World Cup, so the coordination and bonding was excellent in the team. The young squad had finished sixth out of 12 teams at the 1988 Olympics. That was a time when guys like Merwyn Fernandes and Mohammed Shahid were on their way out, and people like me, Pargat Singh, Dhanraj Pillay, Jude Felix, among others, were coming in. All of us wanted to play a long innings in Indian hockey and the team was being built with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in mind.

A defender like Pargat comes once in a generation. Like the late Surjit Singh, Pargat was not only an excellent defender, but he had excellent skills also. He had a good attacking, power game and his game sense was also very good.

Dhanraj had speed and skill. His sudden bursts were a novelty in Indian hockey. If Pakistan's Shahbaz played with his skills, Dhanraj played with speed. After Mohammed Shahid, such skills were seen only in Dhanraj, and that's why he was so talked about.

We had our training camp in the SAI Bangalore centre. It had world-class facilities and the weather was perfect to train.

Our biggest strength was our overall, well-rounded nature. We were good in deep defence, midfield, and attack, and there were no real weak areas. Unfortunately, we could not win a single match in that World Cup, and it has hurt me all my life. That malaal (regret) will stay with me forever.