After the long build-up and an even longer opening ceremony, it’s time to get down to business. The stadium looks great, most tickets have been sold out and the quality of hockey is expected to be better than ever.
A decade ago, world hockey was a place where a dozen countries played pretenders and one of Australia or Germany would complete the formality of being crowned champions. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to name an outright favourite to lift the trophy on December 16. “In my opinion this will be the most open World Cup ever in terms of favourites,” former India, and current Malaysia, coach Roelant Oltmans says.
How India is getting to host FIH marquee events so frequently
For the last four years, India have hosted a major international tournament every year. This kind of generosity from the International Hockey Federation (FIH) is unprecedented, but it is easy to see why they made India their priority destination. The cash, after all, is here. So for the FIH, and in turn world hockey, to sustain itself, it was important that India remained active on the international stage. By awarding India tournaments like the Champions Trophy, World League and World Cup, the FIH ensured India was a part of each of its marquee event, thus guaranteeing sponsorship and broadcast money. In this time, India has managed a few podium finishes, but those came at tournaments that weren’t exactly of highest importance. Curiously, while international hockey depends on India for finances, the money is drying up domestically, which resulted in the Hockey India League being scrapped despite its perceived success. The FIH is likely to shift its stand in the next four-year cycle. And the challenge for India will be to stay a part of the elite group even when it’s not the host.
Australia would, in their inimitable style, be keen to prove otherwise. Time and again, they have exhibited the levels of ruthlessness that can only be an act of the heartless. Humiliating Holland 6-1 in their backyard in the final of the 2014 World Cup was one such occasion. Once again, they look a little sharper than the rest.
That result in 2014, though, shook the soul of Dutch hockey, forcing them to ring in numerous changes to ensure the damage wasn’t long-term. It included replacing the coach. Max Caldas, the Argentine with mafioso look, has made Holland a tougher team to beat. They are more organized and attractive to watch, and once again enter the tournament as one of the leading contenders.
Just how well prepared they are will be seen in the group stages itself. Holland are in the proverbial Group of Death, along with Pakistan, Malaysia and Germany, the Rio bronze medalists who’ve been underground in the build up to Bhubaneswar 2018.
But these teams are expected to do well. What has essentially changed in the last four years is that they are routinely challenged, and often beaten, by countries which, a decade or so ago, would best have been classified as light or middleweight. Belgium gatecrashed their way into the elite group and shook the established order with some eye-popping performances, but the one moment that actually triggered a change in hierarchy was Argentina winning the bronze medal in 2014.
That set a trend which is yet to be reversed. The Rio Olympics final between Belgium and Argentina only asserted the point that world hockey is unpredictable than ever.
For both these teams, this World Cup is the ultimate test. Belgium arguably have the strongest playing group, but they often seem weighed down by expectations. This might be the last chance for this generation of players, who’ve stuck around since London Olympics, to justify their potential.
Argentina, on the other hand, have had a tumultuous build up to the World Cup, with the problem between senior players and coach Carlos Retegui resulting in the latter’s resignation earlier this year. Their credentials of being the Olympic champions are going to be tested to the limit over the next three weeks. But the fact that even spoken of in the same breath as, say, Australia is a testimony to world hockey’s changing order.
Between 2014 and 2018, the international tournaments have been shared between these five nations, with Australia winning the most.
This isn’t about titles alone, however. It’s the rise of the fringes, too, that’s prompting many to go as far as calling this as the golden era of international hockey. Ireland have shown they can shock any side on their day. France, with majority of their players playing club hockey in Belgium, too have the potential of pulling off some upsets. Malaysia have made it a habit to punch above their weight and even though Japan haven’t qualified for the World Cup, their Asian Games triumph has shown something’s going on there as well. China, a respectable force in women’s hockey, will be making their World Cup debut here as well.
Colin Batch, the Australia coach, puts this down to more playing opportunities and organized, if not excessive, funding. “It’s fair to say that world hockey is more competitive than ever before. I think it is because of the opportunities, I think. There are a lot of tournaments now… and well-funded programmes, which have enabled more and more players to play and train all-year round,” Batch tells The Indian Express. “If you’ve got a group that’s training together regularly then you’ll improve. You’re seeing more and more teams doing that now. There was a time when that wasn’t quite the case.”
So, where does India stand in all this? They fall somewhere in between the favourites and outsiders. Most coaches have described India as a team that can surprise any opponent ‘on their day’. But this is something even the players are trying to figure out. India have taken some bold steps – the back-to-back finals in the Champions Trophy prove that they’ve made some progress – but, in big tournaments, the team is yet to show what’s it made of.
In the four-year cycle dating back to the last World Cup, India haven’t shown tangible improvement in major events – they were ninth in previous World Cup, eighth at the Rio Olympics and failed to defend the Asian Games gold. The results and world ranking of five do not really compliment each other.
The world is here. But India is still finding its place in it.