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Award gives confidence, World Cup is the next target, says Goalkeeper of the Year P.R Sreejesh (IANS Friday interview)

For the second year in succession, Olympic bronze medallist Sreejesh has won the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year (Men) 21-22 award, finishing ahead of stalwarts like Pirmin Blaak of the Netherlands, Loic Van Doren of Belgium, Alexander Stadler of Germany and Arthur Thieffry of France, in the vote conducted by the international hockey federation (FIH).

As he won the award for the second year in a row, many would believe that it might not hold much importance for Sreejesh but the 34-year-old goalkeeper from Kerala, who is a sports officer working for the State government, says it has motivated him to keep playing for four-five years. It also gives him the confidence to go for his next target — a medal in the upcoming FIH Men’s World Cup in Odisha (January 2023).

Sreejesh, who played a key role in India winning an Olympic medal after four decades in Tokyo last year, in an exclusive interview with IANS, said that the Asian Games and Paris Olympics in 2024 are the next targets and he will take a call on his retirement only after Paris.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: In your long career, you have won all the awards and medals that hockey has to offer. Where do you put this FIH Star Award for Goalkeeper of the Year (Male) in that list?

A: I am a person who does not believe in individual awards because hockey is a team game. So, whatever success you get in hockey, is connected with the performance of the entire team — all of them play a role in your success. So, the team’s success is very important.

Still getting this Individual award is a great honour. But this could not have happened without a great team. Personally, it is very satisfactory because people have believed that I am the best goalkeeper in the world because of my performance last year. It’s a big motivation and also a big responsibility as I have to keep going and continue to be the best in the world.

Q: What role does the team play in a goalkeeper’s success because goalkeeping is a thankless job?

A: The team plays an important role, it motivates you, it takes you along with you, and you grow with it. For me, it’s not only the defenders that play a role but also the forwards. As a goalkeeper, I may concede a goal but if my forwards score goals, we will win the match and that makes up for the bad day. It motivates you to do better in the next match. So, the team plays a very important role. A lot of credit for my success goes to my teammates as they have encouraged me, motivated me and supported me.

Q: How will you assess the past one year for yourself and the Indian men’s hockey team?

A: Past one year was really good for us, we played all the top teams in the world and it taught us a lot of things which gave us ideas about which areas we should give more attention to, which were the best teams in the world. There were lots of ups and downs but we are still there in the top four and that gives us confidence for the upcoming world cup.

Q: How important the next year will be for you and the team, considering we have the World Cup in Odisha, the Pro League and also the Asian Games has been shifted to next year, so it will be very hectic too.

A: Next year, every day, every match will count for us because next year we start with the World Cup. As we are hosting it, naturally the expectations will be high because we will be playing in front of our home crowd. You can imagine how crowded it’s going to be in Bhubaneswar and I am expecting double the crowd at Rourkela as they are really mad about hockey. And when you are playing in front of your crowd, you can’t let them down, you can’t disappoint them. So, I think, next year we need to work really hard to get through the world cup. We do have lots of Pro League matches after the world cup and later we are facing the best tournament which is Asian Games because it provides us a ticket to the Olympic Games. So, definitely Asian Games, after the World Cup, is going to be our main priority, then we will have hardly one year for Paris (Olympic Games). So definitely, the starting is really going to be a big one, big block and later after the test matches, Pro League, the Asian Games is going to be really important for us.

Q: In a long career, you have played with and seen a couple of generations of players. How has hockey in India changed and how has the Indian team changed ?

A: The best change happened in hockey after the Hockey India League. It helped us to mingle with a lot of international talents, who shared their experiences with us, who were role models for a lot of people and who learned a lot of things. And we started to believe in ourselves. Now the young generation has also started to believe that we can beat anyone at any time and any venue. So, that’s the big change that has happened in Indian hockey — that belief.

And when you are looking at teams like Australia or Netherlands, they had that confidence for a long time. So that’s the reason they ruled the world in the 90s and till 2010. But later on, when we gradually improved, we also started to beat and we also became a headache for them and we started to win tournaments. So, that’s how we gained confidence. This was what we lacked and that is the plus point of this team right now.

Q: You are at a stage in your career at which you have played international hockey for around 15 years, you are among the senior-most goalkeepers not only in India but in world hockey. So, getting the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year Award now adds to the pressure on you because you have to live up to that tag again?

A: If you want to take it as a pressure, that is pressure. But if you want to look into it as motivation, then it is motivation. So, it is really up to you. So for me, I take it as motivation because at this age, if you can do that, then definitely you can do it for another four or five years.

Q: What does winning this award mean to you?

A: Personally, when I look into this award, it is always like a responsibility, because people trust you because this award has not been given by any federation, so there were experts in that panel, there was voting by the fans, there were voting from the media, they were voted for by captains, coaches and national associations. So, everyone feels ‘ok you are a good goalkeeper’. So that gives you the confidence to work harder and look forward confidently and the best part is that you are experienced enough, you manage enough and when you, at this age, can play this game with more freedom and not take it as pressure.

Why do you want to take pressure at this stage? You mentioned that I have achieved everything in all these years, so it is the time to enjoy the game and play your best game in the best way, so automatically that will help you to bring out your best performance when the team really requires it.

Q: This is also the time when a lot of people would ask you till when you want to continue playing the game.

A: Hockey is an addiction, so once you pick up the hockey stick, it is very difficult to put it down and, whenever you are in the national team, when you are playing for your country, it gives you more energy to keep playing on and that gives you the responsibility to be the best in our country and the world. For me, I never thought of just leaving it and going back. For now, my target is definitely the World Cup, then Asian Games and Paris. You can say that till Paris, for sure. Then we can talk about my plans for retirement from hockey.

Q: Do you consider the World Cup as an unfinished business in your career as India has not won a World Cup medal since 1975? You have won Asian Games and Olympic medals, so is this your next target?

A: Definitely yes, I don’t have a World Cup. I do have an Asian Games gold medal. For me, the priority is the World Cup because we are playing at home and it has been a long time since we have not won a medal in the World cup. So, we are giving some importance to the World Cup, after that, yes Asian Games is going to be the next important game for us.

Q: So, the World Cup is your main target now?

A: Yes, but because it will be played first next year (January 2023) after that the Asian Games (Sept 2023) because it is a qualifying event for the 2024 Olympic Games.

–IANS<br>bsk/inj

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