It’s dry and cold in Bhubaneswar. It’s also the wedding season. Roughly 800 marriages take place every year in November and December, considered to be auspicious in Odiya calendar. But 2018 might see an exception. “Koi shadi nahi hoga, sab hockey khelega,” the front officer of a famous Bhubaneswar hotel says. In the last 10 days, this particular hotel has hosted 16 marriages, and the season is just getting started. Next year, though, it will host none.
“No vacancy” signs are already hung across the hotels in Bhubaneswar as the state government has taken each one of the approximately 1,000 rooms available to ensure there is no shortage of accommodation, at least for the 16 participating nations in next year’s World Cup.
Bhubaneswar has shown it has the appetite for big-time sport. The Asian Athletics Championships and Hockey World League this year have drawn huge interest among the locals, with thousands pouring in every day to watch even non-India matches. In that sense, there couldn’t have been a better venue. But like most host cities, it continues to grapple with some teething issues–accommodation being the biggest.
With a year still to go, all the rooms in the city have already been taken over by the state government for the teams and their support staff along with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and organizing committee officials. For a travelling fan, carrying a sleeping bag should not be a bad idea. Else, the alternate is to stay in Puri or Cuttack, an hour’s drive from the capital.
The organisers have allayed fears. Hockey India CEO Elena Norman says they have ‘sufficient rooms to accommodate all teams’. But Odisha government’s sport secretary Vishal Dev says the ‘biggest challenge’ for them is to ensure accommodation for the fans. “In terms of the sheer number of players coming, Asian Athletics was the biggest – there were around 1000. With the World Cup, the difference is a large number of fans will travel,” he says. “So accommodation for them might be a challenge, not for the teams. That will be the biggest challenge.”
Shortage of rooms isn’t the only concern. This week, three out of the eight teams at the World League have complained of hygiene at one of the most famous hotels here. It’s an embarrassment for the government, who immediately sent officials from its food safety departments to all team hotels, where the kitchen and supplies were inspected. Subsequently, all hotels have been asked to maintain specified standards to host the teams next years.
At the Kalinga Stadium, the swimming pool has become a point of contention. As a part of its expansion drive, the organisers want to construct a stand by demolishing a swimming pool that’s adjacent to the pitch. It has drawn flak from the locals, who say the government spent a crore recently on renovating the pool. The work, nevertheless, is already underway but it’s a race against time.
The state government has four months to expand the capacity of East and West stands, construct new stands on the North and South sections with a capacity of 3,500 each. If all deadlines are met, the stadium’s current capacity of 9,000 is expected to be doubled. According to the FIH’s requirements, a new turf will also be installed on the main as well as practice pitch.
Because of its proximity to the 2019 general elections, the locals are anticipating the World Cup to be a tug-of-war between the ruling Biju Janata Dal and its rival Bharatiya Janata Party. You can already see the two fighting for space to claim credit for the World League, with posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, both wishing the Indian hockey team, littered around the city.
Some fear Pakistan’s participation could eventually become an election issue. The Green Shirts qualified for the event after missing the previous edition that was played in Holland. But they’ve failed to secure visas in time for some of the major events that have been held in India recently, including last year’s junior World Cup.
Norman says they’ve already intimated the Indian government of Pakistan’s participation and puts the onus on them to complete formalities on time. “We have already written to the ministry of youth affairs, home and defence, seeking permission for hosting the 16 teams, one of them being Pakistan, for the tournament,” she says. “After that, it is up to Pakistan to proceed accordingly. There is a time limit and they have to fulfill all the requirements by then.”
The last time Pakistan were here, in the 2014 Champions Trophy, it ended with their players abusing the crowd and flashing the finger at them. The locals have moved on. “It doesn’t matter to us. For us, it’s a big thing to just host the World Cup,” says 21-year-old Abit Ranjan Das, a Bhubaneswar resident. “All big matches always go to Cuttack. Hockey will finally put Bhubaneswar on the world map. So nothing else will be more important than hockey.” Not even marriages.