The big Odisha push in Indian hockey is being welcomed by many, including the FIH (International Hockey Federation), the game’s controlling body, but sports cognoscenti are wondering whether these big buck events are actually worth the effort. More importantly, if there is at all any long-term impact or gain by holding big-ticket events in a state where the actual need is a grass-root push, and not marquee events that only satiate the masses.
For the second successive time, for the first time in World Cup history, a city, Bhubaneswar, will host the 2023 Men’s World Cup. The matches will be held at Bhubaneswar and Rourkela–a town known for its steel plant and a small airstrip where only six-seater planes can land. It has an ageing stadium but no hotels that can cater to international hockey teams and no infrastructure which is so much required to host a World Cup. The state government and its bureaucrats are proudly claiming that the 2023 World Cup will change the face of the state. No one has asked Odisha Chief Minister Navin Patnaik if the World Cup will help improve standards of the game across Odisha, more importantly in Sundergarh which is the hub of tribal hockey players. The reality is simple – a Junior World Cup held in Odisha will have a larger impact than a senior WC. The Jr. WC has all the requisites skills, excitement and also the tag of a World Cup. Most importantly, it comes at a much lesser cost and if spread across the state in four venues – the sport will also get the much-desired spread.
Stadiums and turfs are being gifted across the state. But the question is: Why Cuttack is out of the scheme of things? If international cricket can be played in Cuttack to full houses, so can hockey and it’s an hour’s ride from Bhubaneswar. The teams can stay in the state’s capital and play in Cuttack. All that is required is a stadium and two turfs. There are enough sport-crazy fans in Cuttack who will fill up for hockey too. It solves the issue of travel for many teams. But no one is answering.
As many as 17 new turfs are being planned for the region where the quality of sand needs to be of a higher grade. There is a huge difference in the sand quality found in Europe and the one in India. The Indian sand tends to clump together over a period of time. Plus, the mineral-laden dust of the Sundergarh area will also create issues on a sand-turf. Nobody would want to spend crores of rupees on turfs which after a couple of years are not fit for play, right? But wouldn’t it have been better to import second-hand turfs from Europe which are in a good condition? Or buy new turfs, cut them in half and install, half turfs across the region? After all, the idea is to ensure that sub-juniors play on an artificial pitch!
Now, publicity material, videos and posters will be planned on the lines of Kalinga is the best in the world which translates into Odisha is the best place on earth. Remember these campaigns will fill Indian newspapers, magazines and television channels and then travel across the world, stretching from the giant screens of Sydney Harbour to those expensive double-decker buses in London and Kuala Lumpur.
The previous World Cup had cost the state government of Odisha, according to sources inside the state government, a whopping Rs 250 crore plus, and this time there are high chances that the budget would cross almost Rs 400 crore. Remember, mineral-rich Odisha is among India’s most impoverished states with large tracts of land without water, power and basic sanitation facility. Why is Odisha pushing hockey, is India’s best kept secret? Won’t the masses, at some point, ask why are crores being spent on a sport when the state so badly needs water, sanitation and a programme which uplifts people from poverty?
At the 2018 World Cup in Odisha, 90% of the advertising came from the state, plus the state paid to host the World Cup. It’s a sweet spot for the FIH. They don’t have to worry about anything. A ready-made host who is using state funds (taxpayers’ money) that could go into grass-root sport but is being spent on high-value World Cup’s, the impact of which has still not been calculated.
The FIH says Odisha is the best. Since the 2014 Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar and except for the 2016 Junior World Cup in Lucknow, all the FIH events and two Olympic qualifiers were held in Bhubaneswar, which will also host India’s FIH Pro League in 2020. Hockey India CEO Elena Norman is on record saying no other venue is as good as Bhubaneswar, Delhi is the only other city which is on par. Are we saying that the stadiums in Chennai, Delhi, Lucknow, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Mohali, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar are worthless? Won’t Hockey India want to spread the game across the country? Does anyone realise that there is an overkill of Himalayan proportions happening in Odisha? When the Indian women’s team played their first Olympic qualifier against USA recently, around 3500 had turned up. That is the warning that even for the fans, hockey is not something that can be constantly thrust down their throat.
Elena Norman, the big boss of FIH, has a huge list of demands like four changing rooms, video tower facilities, broadcast requirements, rooms for technical and FIH officials, mandatory second pitch as per FIH rules, and of course a world class stadium. Bhubaneswar has all of it. This is not all, Hockey India had pledged a guarantee of 3.5 million Swiss Francs (Rs 25.3 crore) to clinch the improbable deal.
But what Norman did not mention is that across the world, makeshift stands are set up. Big tournaments like the last 2018 Champions Trophy in Breda was actually played at the BH & BC club. Temporary stands were set up and the players were happy to use the club change rooms; then the organisers and FIH did not even raise a finger of protest. So why push all these conditions on India? Secondly, is the Delhi facility always occupied by the Home Ministry and other security forces so that a tournament of the magnitude of the World Cup cannot be organised? Does that mean India just does not have any other facilities barring these two cities and if such facilities need to be created, crores need to be raised and spent?
The big question that remains unanswered is what is the state getting out of these mega-mega shows? The Odisha government sponsors the Indian national hockey team but the standard of the game in the state is abysmally low – two players get into the national team. One can always argue, yes, time is required for talent to blossom. But isn’t that what we are arguing about – that do you require a World Cup to initiate grass root development – two consecutive World Cup’s!! By any standards, Odisha cannot be called the cradle of hockey. Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka produce more players and just for the record, at times, 60% of the Indian team has players from Punjab; it might fluctuate but that is a safe assumption looking at the Indian teams over the last decade or so.
Worse, Hockey India does not have a backup plan in place if the Naveen Patnaik government doesn’t come back to power after its current tenure. However, the next World Cup is in January 2023, coinciding well with the state assembly elections scheduled for that year.
And, just for the record, the 2023 World Cup will be held in its 5th year not 4th as all sport cycles usually work. In scheduling the World Cup, was an eye kept on the assembly elections too?
So why push hockey time and again, just because – so claims the FIH – international players are familiar with the facilities and infrastructure at the Kalinga Stadium? Then why does the FIFA rotate the Soccer World Cup, why does the ICC rotate the Cricket World Cup? Why is the IOC so hell-bent on finding a new city for the Games?
What is more disturbing is the fact that the state government is the principal sponsor of the tournament for a very long time, an indication that not too many brands get associated with the show. It is common knowledge in India that cricket takes the cake and icing both when it comes to sponsorships and advertisements. But if the state government bankrolls a venture as big as the World Cup and spends the largest slice of an estimated Rs 400 crore budget, then Hockey India and FIH have no worries. The FIH is happy because India hosts a large number of international tournaments in the hope to promote the game and spread awareness. Strangely no other hockey playing nation across the world is keen to pump cash into the game like India, a trend which many hockey experts find extremely disturbing.
The Europeans are disturbed by the way Odisha is going to host the World Cup for a second consecutive time. In fact, someone joked on twitter saying that since FIH says they are making money from hosting it in Odisha, then why not give the World Cup Trophy to India as winners for 2023, and save the money that teams will spend on travelling and the organisational money can then be put into the coffers of the FIH! An European hockey official, who didn’t want to be named said: “If the idea is to ensure that India win the World Cup, then we all say, give the World Cup to them. At least, then the other nations can start hosting it.”
The idea of sport is not just money generation. Yes, it’s not an ideal world. But sport also needs to spread. At the Olympics, the sword is always hanging on hockey. With Belgium being the World Cup Champions, it was a great opportunity to give them the World Cup and enhance the popularity which is already growing at a pace in Belgium that India cannot imagine. But their bid was rejected. The Belgians are fuming. But remain quiet.
Look at the way the hockey nationals are being held. The nationals are hosted in Tier-3 cities. But most of the time, the top players do not play in the tournament. The Hockey India League that once started with great fanfare and Bollywood endorsement like IPL being done and dusted, the tournament now lies like a prostrate, disembowelled Gulliver. As a result, there is no other way for any aspiring hockey player to watch top stars in action live unless they travel to Bhubaneswar.
How ridiculous it this?
The question to be asked here is – why couldn’t Odisha come forward and just sponsor the Hockey India League? That way, they could have contributed to the growth of the sport across the country and the brand of Odisha would have spread across the length and breadth of the nation.
It’s prestigious that India hosts a World Cup for the second time in a row. But, an intelligent FIH and HI could have asked other cities to hold the Pool Matches and have Odisha host the World Cup semi-finals and final. That way, Bharat could have watched the World Cup in stadiums. And not just Odisha.
Is anyone listening?