Any mention of Indian men hockey team’s campaign at the 1968 Mexico Olympics invariably brings into focus how ‘infighting’ and ‘groupism’ in the team was attributed to the failure to retain the gold medal (won at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) as the Blueshirts settled for a bronze, which was not even considered a ‘performance worth talking about’ given the sky-high expectations prevailing around the team at that juncture. The larger talking point surrounded over how India paid a heavy price for having two joint captains at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – Prithipal Singh and Gurbux Singh.
And promenading 54 years down the memory line, Gurbux Singh one of the two captains of the bronze-winning Indian team at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, says India’s inability to go beyond a bronze medal win to poor performance and misbehaviour of a few players. “There was no infighting or groupism in the side, we just did not play to our potential that cost us dearly. Of course, misbehaviour of a few players affected our Olympic campaign. I think the team was mismanaged – our manager Col Kalha was unable to rein in misbehaviour of a few players,” Gurbux says in a candid chat with Hockey Passion.
says that everyone looks for a scapegoat in a lost cause and in this scenario he and Prithipal were the obvious targets. “All the talk about me and Prithipal having issues (because we were joint captains) are rubbish – there was no problem at all between both of us and I think all the negative stuff was the brainchild of the then Indian Hockey Federation,” says Gurbux in a candid chat with Hockey Passion.
The 85-year-old former bespectacled fullback revealed how he had reasons to be feel aggrieved at being denied captaincy for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The ace defender was leading the national side in several internationals in the run-up to the Mexico Olympics – he captained the national side on the 1966 Japan tour, 1996 Europe tour as well as captained on the 1966 Hamburg festival, 1967 Sri Lanka tour as well as the 1967 Pre-Olympic Tourney. “Even at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok, I was a strong contender for captaincy but Shankar Laxman was preferred owing to his seniority, and I was named one of the three vice captains for the Asiad (alongside Prithipal Singh and Haripal Kashyap). I can recall the team for the 1968 Mexico Olympics was announced in Jallandhar and a month or so later, the name of the captain, coach and manager was announced in Ooty. It was then IHF Treasurer Prof Gursewak Sing who informed me that Pritihpal was named captain and I was hurt because I was leading the side in the run up to the Olympics and a lot of stuff was written that I threatened to walk out of the national camp in protest, which is not correct. IHF understood my sentiments and named joint captains within a day of naming Prithipal as skipper,” reminisces the former defender who was born in Peshawar (now Pakistan).
Gurbux, who made his senior international debut against New Zealand at Auckland in 1961, all the talk about him and Prithipal not getting along well was nothing but rubbish. I never harboured any ill-intentions towards Prithipal as he was one of the finest penalty corner hitters Indian has produced. I think all the negative stuff was the brainchild of the then Indian Hockey Federation,” he says.
Gurbux, who played club hockey for East Bengal Club, Calcutta Customs, and Mohun Bagan, elaborates on how he cajoled Prithipal to play the crucial semifinal against Australia (which India lost 1-2). “Prithipal had a muscle pull and was reluctant to play the semifinal and asked me to replace him with Dharam Singh. I told him he has to play because he was in good form and we did not want to take a chance with Dharam Singh because he has not played in any of the games en route to the semifinal. Prithipal did a couple of rounds of sprinting and felt good and I warmed with him together. If there was any rivalry, I wouldn’t try to convince him to play the semifinal. All talk of both us not getting along well was the creation of vested interests,” he makes his point.
Gurbux, was one of the two Indians alongside Harbinder Singh who were picked in the World XI immediately after the Mexico Olympics. For the stats-minded, India pipped then West Germany 2-1 to garner the bronze – Prithipal scored one of India’s goals was the team’s top scorer (7 Goals).