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A Truck Driver’s Son, Harjeet Singh Led the Indian Junior Hockey Team to a Historic World Cup Win

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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.

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India End 15-Year Wait, Defeat Belgium For 2nd Junior Hockey World Cup Title
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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.

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Harjeet Singh
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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.

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Harjeet’s father, Rampal Singh, is a truck driver
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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.

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Harjeet Singh in action

 

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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.

On the field, however, Harjeet remained unstoppable. Determined to excel, he put in his sweat and blood and soon, he had made the midfield position his own. It was then that he got selected to play in the Hockey India League. A major break, this helped provide a steady source of income to meet the demands of playing hockey. His prolific performances on the field also garnered the attention of the national coaches. In 2015, he was selected as the captain of an 18 member junior hockey squad for the 8th Junior Men’s Asia Cup that was held in Malaysia.
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Harjeet Singh with the Asia Cup 2015 trophy
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A tournament where several faces emerged, the Junior Asia Cup was a turning point in Harjeet’s career. The midfielder not only created moves but also scored an odd goal or two. He opened the scoring in India’s win over Pakistan in the group stage and was named man of the match in the final, where they once again defeated Pakistan to clinch the title.
Other than his mature displays in the midfield, what also shone through was Harjeet’s natural leadership skills. As India’s junior team coach Harendra Singh says, Harjeet is wise beyond his years and is always looking for ways to keep the team together and interested. At the national camp, when he is not plotting for the next match or tournament with the coach, the junior hockey team captain ensures that he takes time out to make kadak chai for rest of the players. Other than keeping them fresh and alert, Harjeet believes that sharing a cup of tea helps all of them bond as a team!
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Harjeet Singh with fellow hockey player, Harmanpreet Singh (left)
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In 2016, Harjeet was named as the ‘Jugraj Singh Upcoming Player of the Year (Men-21)’ at the Hockey India Annual Awards. A player who has struggled against financial hardship throughout his career, he considers the Rs 10 lakh cheque he has received as prize money as life-changing. He plans to use the prize money to support his family.
Harjeet was also rewarded for his consistency with a call-up in the senior men’s squad for the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in April (the team finished second behind world champions Australia). He was also part of the Indian senior men’s team that won the silver medal at the FIH Champions Trophy in London this year where he replaced ace midfielder Sardar Singh.
Today, the Indian skipper is now working hard to ensure a place for himself in the senior squad for the Tokyo Olympics. And it won’t be a surprise if he makes the cut. A quick thinker with a vision, Harjeet Singh has the ability to help the team control the game. He is also the junior team’s creative outlet. Other than using his experience with seniors to help the junior team prepare for big matches, Harjeet also helps the team prepare models for everything – from diet to field tactics.
Under Harjeet’s leadership, the junior team follows just one motto for every match and every situation: play simple hockey. This was also what guided the team as they chased a dream of winning the Junior World Cup for the first time since 2001. And they did just that. On Sunday, the Indian U-21 hockey team scripted history by becoming only the second team after Germany to win the Junior World Cup for the second time in Lucknow.
“We knew what we had to do on the field. We just concentrated on playing simple hockey. We played the final like a final. We all had one aim and we thankfully managed to achieve that today”, said an elated and emotional Harjeet, the precious trophy proudly by his side.

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Written by Sanchari Pal

A lover of all things creative and happy, Sanchari is a biotech engineer who fell in love with writing and decided to make it her profession. She is also a die-hard foodie, a pet-crazy human, a passionate history buff and an ardent lover of books. When she is not busy at The Better India, she can usually be found reading, laughing at silly cat videos and binge-watching TV seasons.