For the second time this year, India’s junior men’s hockey team beat Belgium on the way to lifting a trophy. This one, however, was the biggest prize of all. In its first such final in 15 years, India overwhelmed Belgium 2-1 to lift the 2016 Hockey Junior World Cup at Lucknow’s Major Dhyan Chand Hockey Stadium on Sunday and become the second team, after Gagan Ajit Singh’s colts in 2001, to get their hands on the most coveted title. This is also the first time that a host nation has won the Cup in 11 editions.
As ever, it was the team’s soft-spoken skipper Harjeet Singh who led from the front. The 20-year-old mid-fielder from Kurali in Punjab was in total control of the midfield, snatching balls and creating chances from counter attacks for his strikers, helping India control the game from the very beginning. Harjeet has also been instrumental in the junior team’s other successes in recent times. He led the colts in Valencia in Spain last month where they won the four-nation Invitational Tournament beating Germany in the final.
Here’s the inspiring story of Harjeet Singh went from being a shy village lad to an Indian captain who led his team to World Cup victory.
Son of a truck driver from Kurali in Mohali district of Punjab, Harjeet Singh knows a thing or two about hardships. Back in the 200s, Harjeet started playing hockey with the neighbourhood kids. The young boy was yet to hear of any of the hockey stars of the era and his hero was a local hockey player who ‘created magic on the field’.
Initially, when Harjeet told his family that he wanted to play hockey as a career, they were aghast. His father did not earn much to support his playing career and it had become increasingly tough for his family to meet the monetary demands of the sport; his family had had to borrow money to buy a hockey kit for Harjeet. So, Harjeet’s parents felt that it would be tough for him to make a career in hockey and told him to stop playing the sport and focus on his studies.
While Harjeet did pay more attention to his studies, he knew that playing hockey was where his heart lay. So, he continued to sneak out of the house and play at the Gopal Hockey Academy. When his hockey sticks used to break, his coach and seniors at the Academy would lend him one. For the longest time, Harjeet’s family remained unaware that he was playing hockey.
Hockey, however, changed his life and that of his family too. By the time his family came to know, Harjeet had already begun making a name for himself. Seeing him doing well, his family decided to support him. His elder brother Rajwinder Singh took up a daily wage job in Saudi Arabia to keep the money coming for Harjeet’s training.
Soon after, in 2008, he left his village to join the famous Surjit Singh Academy at Jalandhar. While initially he dreamt of becoming fullback like his idol, Arjuna awardee and former India captain Surjit Singh, he decided to make the midfield his forte on the advise of his coaches.
The move to the midfield paid off spectacularly. In 2012, he was selected for the Punjab junior hockey team and he played a crucial role in helping the team win the Junior National title in 2012 as well as in 2013. He also made his Junior National debut in the 2012 Sultan of Johor Cup. The next year, he was named the most promising player at the 2013 Sultan of Johor Cup held in Malaysia.
It was a big moment for Harjeet, one which still remains close to his heart; Hockey India awarded him Rs 1 lakh for his exemplary performance and when he returned to his village, he was welcomed by his proud parents who took him around the entire village in an open-roof jeep. Talking to the Indian Express, he later said,
“There were posters of me everywhere. It felt incredible because as a kid, I used to take the same route hiding from all the known faces so that they wouldn’t tell my family that I continued to play hockey.”
After this, there was no looking back for Harjeet. As Harjeet’s participation in tournament’s increased, financial difficulties also increased, despite his family’s efforts to ensure that there was no shortage of training kits. There were times when Harjeet thought of quitting hockey due to the hardships his family was facing financing his dream.