When the Indian hockey team regained its lost glory at 1980 Moscow Olympics

A relatively inexperienced team, led by Vasudevan Baskaran, was moulded into champions by motivational talks from ex-players and an Army chief.

An Olympics gold for the Indian hockey team was almost a given in the years after independence.

The Indian men’s hockey team had won a hat-trick of titles in 1948, 1952 and 1956 before Pakistan broke that golden streak in the 1960 Olympics final. India, though, regained the crown beating their neighbours in 1964.

However, India had finished with bronze in both 1968 and 1972 and slumped to their then-lowest finish (seventh) in the 1976 edition. Thus, going into the 1980 Olympic Games, expectations were restrained.

However, on July 29, 1980, the glory of yore was wrested back in Moscow. The Indian hockey team beat Spain 4-3 in an end-to-end final to ensure its eighth and last Olympic gold medal.

An inexperienced side

The Indian hockey team picked for the 1980 Summer Olympics collectively did not have too much international exposure under its belt, with only Zafar Iqbal, Merwyn Fernandes, MM Somaya, Bir Bahadur Chhetri and skipper Vasudevan Baskaran having played against foreign opposition.

With so many youngsters, skipper Baskaran felt that his team needed an extra dose of motivation to build its confidence before flying out of India.

And so, the first inspirational talk happened at a pre-Olympic national camp in Bengaluru.

“This bunch was lucky to have been spoken to by field marshal Sam Manekshaw,” captain Vasudevan Baskaran had said on the Sony Sports show Medal of Glory.

“He visited us twice and talked about the target at the Olympics. That’s how it began.”

Having seen the effect it had, the Indian hockey team captain also requested former Olympic hockey gold medallists and selectors, Leslie Claudius and Muniswamy Rajagopal to talk about their triumphs.

The talks genuinely made an impact.

The Indian hockey team’s last Olympic gold medal came at Moscow 1980
The Indian hockey team’s last Olympic gold medal came at Moscow 1980The Indian hockey team’s last Olympic gold medal came at Moscow 1980

The turning point

In 1980, hockey at the Olympics was reduced to a six-team tournament as the original plan for a 12-team event, divided into two groups, was shelved after nine countries pulled out.

The field hockey entrants were India, Spain, Poland, Cuba, Tanzania, and the hosts Soviet Union.

In its first game, India comprehensively beat Tanzania 18-0 and recorded identical 2-2 draws against Poland and Spain in the next two.

The Poland game was a setback of sorts because a profligate Indian hockey team missed a plethora of chances in the dying moments and Baskaran himself missed a penalty stroke.

However, the draw with European champions Spain made the team believe in itself again, Baskaran said.

“I think it was the turning point of our campaign. Spain was a fantastic team with one of the best coaches in the world and a great forwardline and holding them actually made me feel this team had it in them to win.” - Vasudevan Baskaran

India then blanked unfancied Cuba 13-0 to go through to the semi-finals.

To prepare for the clash against hosts Soviet Union in the last four, the Indian hockey team decided to change their tactics.

“For that game, we decided to go for indirect penalty corners. We studied a lot of video footage in the lead-up to the semi-final to figure out a way to execute it,” revealed Baskaran.

“It was a full stadium with a raucous home crowd and some teams may have been intimidated. But our players were so confident that they were constantly asking for the ball.” - Vasudevan Baskaran

“Zafar Iqbal actually yelled at me a couple of times because I was looking for alternate options on the opposite flank,” Baskaran, who has been coach of the Indian hockey team, said.

The approach worked as India got past the hosts 4-2 to storm into the final brimming with confidence.

A thrilling final

The final against Spain started very well for the Indian hockey team as Surinder Singh Sodhi, playing as an advanced midfielder, scored twice before half-time to give them a comfortable 2-0 cushion.

MK Kaushik scored early into the second half, but this was when the match turned on its head. Spain captain Juan Amat scored twice in two minutes to get the Spaniards right back into the game at 2-3.

Juan Amat kept Spain in the game against India in the Moscow 1980 final
Juan Amat kept Spain in the game against India in the Moscow 1980 finalJuan Amat kept Spain in the game against India in the Moscow 1980 final

This was where another innovative tactic, admittedly a gamble, of playing the late Mohammad Shahid as a centre-forward paid off.

“He had not scored many goals till then because his skills meant that we stuck him on the inside flanks, from where he would set-up a lot of goals,” recalled Baskaran.

“But we knew we needed someone like him up-front in the final and so, told him to not track back too much.” 

Mohammad Shahid did score India’s fourth goal and it turned out to be the most important one of the campaign.

Juan Amat completed his hat-trick and Spain forced two penalty corners in the dying seconds of the game but India managed to hold on to the slender lead.

“For the first penalty corner, I positioned myself on the right because I felt Amat would hit it there. I managed to block it and quickly moved to the left for the next one, and just as the ball touched my stick, the whistle blew,” recounted Baskaran.

Once more India established its hockey supremacy at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Even if Moscow gold remains the last Olympic gold medal won by the Indian hockey team, the country still remains a global superpower.

Expectation will be high again when the next Summer Olympics come up in Tokyo. The Indian hockey team has to heal a 40-year itch!

Enjoyed this story? Share it with your friends!