Editor's Note: In every athletes' life comes a moment that flips his/her career around. A solitary slice of inspiration, a date with destiny, an important result, a wise word, the proverbial turning point may arrive in any shape or form and end up defining the said athlete. In Turning Point, Firstpost's latest weekly series, we look at some such moments.
In the past two decades, Viren Rasquinha has courted fame by playing for India at big-ticket events like the Athens Olympics and Hockey World Cups; made headlines by retiring from the sport at the age of 28 to study management, and then played a role in many of India's Olympic medals as the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest.
But Rasquinha's life could have turned out much differently had it not been for a Junior National Championship 21 years ago, a tournament Rasquinha calls the turning point of his career.
The year was 1999 and Rasquinha had been chosen to captain the Mumbai hockey team for the 30th edition of the Junior Hockey Nationals in Bangalore. Facing strong teams like Karnataka and Punjab & Sind Bank in the quarters and semis, the underrated Mumbai team belied expectations and powered into the final for the first time in 24 years.
"We exceeded expectations in that tournament. We were not expected to progress beyond the quarter-finals. The Karnataka team, which we played in the quarters, had players like Arjun Halappa. Since the tournament was being played in Bangalore, they were also the home side and firm favourites against us. No one expected Mumbai to beat them," Rasquinha tells Firstpost.
But beat them Mumbai did. And then they pulled off another minor miracle against a very strong Punjab & Sind team.
Clarence Lobo, who back then was a selector for the Mumbai junior team, watched the match from the stands. Despite 21 years having passed, Lobo's memories of the match are remarkably sharp.
"Bombay were trailing in that game, but they produced a remarkable turnaround! They played fantastic hockey in that match. With only their brains (they beat Punjab & Sind Bank)! That was what Bombay hockey teams were known for: once we had the upper hand in a game, finish! They will deprive the opponents of the ball the whole match. That's what happened in that semi-final. Once they wrested back the lead, they started holding the ball," says Lobo.
The Mumbai fairytale, though, was cut short by the Air India academy squad, which had four players from the senior India squad like Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh, Devesh Chauhan, and Anurag Raghuvanshi.
"Air India were a very strong and established team. The cream of junior talent across the country was at the Air India academy at the time," says Rasquinha. "They were by far the favourites. But we were not really afraid, because we had nothing to lose."
While losing in the final at the Junior Nationals would have been deflating, it did eliminate any doubt Rasquinha had about himself.
"Before that tournament, I wasn't sure if I was good enough to play for India," admits Rasquinha. "I was always good at studies so I wasn't sure that hockey was the way forward for me. I wanted to play hockey, I wanted to give everything¦ But in that tournament, more than proving anything to anyone else, I proved to myself that I could play at that level and I could match up to the best players in the country. That was important."
Rasquinha has never looked back since. Soon after the tournament, he got called into the India junior hockey camp and was part of the India set-up until he retired to pursue further studies in 2008.
"If it was not for that tournament, there was no way I would have caught the eye of the national selectors," says Rasquinha.
Rasquinha's doubts over his calibre to play for India were not shared by his early coaches like Lobo and grassroots hockey coach Marzban Patel (or Bawa, as he is fondly known in Mumbai circles). Both Dronacharya Awardees knew from a young age that Rasquinha was meant for the big stage.
"When Viren was playing for the Bombay Republicans, Bawa would always talk about him each time I would meet him. So I thought I should go watch him play. He was just out of school, but I could tell he was the most intelligent player on the pitch. His basics were strong, and he could read the game very well," says Lobo.
Soon, Rasquinha was playing for the Tata side coached by Lobo.
"No flaws," was Lobo's early assessment upon coaching him. "He was a very intelligent boy. Besides playing hockey, he continued studying. If a player is educated it makes things easy for the coach. He was a coach's player, he would do whatever the coach asked of him rather than whatever he wanted to do. He had great leadership qualities and was very disciplined.
"More importantly, he could speak and the confidence level he had was at a different level. Youngsters playing the sport should look up to him," says Lobo.