Hockey has come home. It might sound a cheesy spinoff of England’s Russia 2018 call, but in the current context, it somehow fits just right. For most players, a hockey tournament in India is more than just about the sport—it’s almost a spiritual voyage. And a competition in Bhubaneswar, a World Cup no less, feels like homecoming. “It’s a lifetime experience to play here,” gushes Argentine star Gonzalo Peillat, the Cristiano Ronaldo equivalent of world hockey.
Bhubaneswar isn’t the birthplace of hockey. But talk to the locals, and they’ll spend hours convincing you that this where its soul resides. Hockey isn’t just a way of life for them; it is life —especially for those from the tribal belt. That’s the reason why Hockey India showed the courage to take an event of this magnitude to a town that’s never seen anything like this before. “Sixteen countries are coming to Odisha, can you imagine!” Bijoy, an auto driver, says. “It’s all because of hockey. Why else would they care about this place?”
This World Cup is a cross between sport, society and politics. The state has reached out to the world like no other hosts before them. They have been innovative and aggressive, not something that you usually associate with the sport. Hockey tournaments globally are generally understated. But Bhubaneswar has broken the mould with the bling.
In the last few months, the organisers have rolled out buses revealing India’s ‘best kept secret’ in London, Berlin, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur and Breda to try and woo tourists. The glistening golden beaches of Puri have been sold as a hotspot for the vacationers and fan parks have been set-up across Odisha—primarily in the hockey belts like Rourkela and Sundergarh.
Sportspersons across spectrum have lent their support to the event and Bollywood’s biggest celebrities will be performing at the opening ceremony. The city itself has undergone a massive facelift, the walls adorned with murals of global stars from the women and men’s game.
On Monday, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik posed with the trophy and 16 captains at the Mukhteshwar temple while the state’s sports minister, Chandra Sarathi Behera participated in a hawan in the stands while Argentina and Canada played a practice match. “So much effort has gone into all this, you need some divine intervention to ensure everything goes off smoothly,” one of Behera’s security guards says.
Not just effort, a lot of money too has gone into all this. Odisha government claims they’ve spent close to Rs 100 crore in refurbishing the stadium and branding the tournament. The spending isn’t just restricted to branding.
The Kalinga Stadium has undergone unrecognizable transformation. Four years ago, when it hosted its first tournament — the Champions Trophy — it was a worn-out facility that lacked character. Now, it looks chic. The two brand new stands, the plush dressing rooms and the glittering VIP boxes give the stadium a trendy look.
You can feel the atmosphere even when it’s empty. It’s hard to imagine how it will be when it’s full and local stars Birender Lakra or Amit Rohidas make those charging runs forward. Actually, it’s not. “It’ll be mad, won’t it?” wonders Australian legend Ric Charlesworth. “They’ve done an incredible job with the stadium.”
It’s refreshing. But it’s also debatable. There have been muted objections to the scale of the government’s spending. There’s also a political undertone to it, with several locals suggesting that the current BJD government is trying to score crucial brownie points by projecting the World Cup as its own success story — the numerous hoardings of Patnaik that are peppered across the city make no attempt at hiding that bit. The other argument can be that hockey, finally, is getting its due. For far too long, the sport has moaned about receiving step-motherly treatment. Of course, the scale and hockey World Cups cannot be compared to football or cricket. But there is a difference. With football, nations are often left with the feeling that they’ve been used. FIFA’s corporate gloss and sanitization take away the host city’s original identity.
The International Hockey Federation (FIH), on the other hand, barely interferes. They’ve so far been involved only in the technical aspects. Of course, it works in the organisers’ favour that the president of the FIH, Narinder Batra, was the Hockey India chief not too long ago and continues to wield huge influence even today. With its Bhubaneswar backdrop, the tournament already has so much to offer that it would be a shame it the sport’s stars do not weave their magic. The stage is set for the game’s biggest names—for Peillat, Florian Fuchs, Mink van der Weerden and the rest although India will hope to quell them.
Perhaps, a new generation superstar will emerge in the shape of Spain’s Enrique Gonzalez, among the few who still practices the dying art of dribbling, or even Dilpreet Singh, the young Indian who has been turning quite a few heads with his opportunistic finishing. Australia are chasing their third consecutive title, an unprecedented feat. A couple of years ago, that seemed a distant possibility, but they have not just survived the transitory phase but emerged stronger. But their task will be made daunting by a resurgent Dutch team and a Belgian side that’s still keen to justify its ‘golden generation’ tag.
If past tournaments here are a template, then anything is possible. One thing, though, is certain: if the temple city is the spiritual home of hockey, then, for the next three weeks, the players will be its high priests.