This is Ireland captain David Harte’s second World Cup. It is, however, his first as a player. At The Hague four years ago, he was a commentator. In Bhubaneswar, they have a reputation of being a team no one wants to face. Australia would testify to this, they were after all stretched by this bunch of greenhorns in their World Cup opener last week.
On Tuesday, Ireland showed spunk to come from a goal down and hold China to a 1-1 draw. It wasn’t a result they wanted — this was a match they should’ve won to virtually guarantee themselves of a place in the crossover matches. For a team that last competed at this stage 28 years ago (when they finished 12th), reaching Bhubaneswar should be an achievement of sorts in itself. But they aren’t settling for it. Especially given the current mood in the country, where hockey’s popularity has soared than ever before.
Four years ago, Ireland barely had 5,000 registered hockey players. Today, there are 35,000 men and women playing the sport, according to Harte. Till 2015, the year they won their first European Championship bronze, no Irish players played for European clubs. From the 18 who are here, 13 play at clubs across Germany, Belgium and Holland. In Rio two years ago, they competed at their first-ever Olympics.
Perhaps, the most significant change has been off-the-field. “We don’t have to pay to play anymore,” Harte says. It’s almost unheard of, but till a year or so ago, Irish players had to shell out money from their own pockets to represent the national team.
It wasn’t always like that. Irish hockey received funding of roughly Rs 56 lakh annually from their government, but it was almost halved following the economic crisis that gripped the world in 2008. The scenario was such that Harte was earning more in one month of playing the Hockey India League (Rs 31.3 lakh) than Irish hockey received in the entire year.
The miniscule budget would be spent on developing grassroots, leaving the national side with virtually empty coffers. So in 2009, with recession at its peak, the players decided to create a pool for themselves. Each of the 40 members of the core group chipped in roughly Rs 38,000 at the start of a new season, which would go to the central pool from where the national team affairs were managed. To generate additional funds, the players conduct fundraising matches and depend on private sponsors, who are very few.
“It’s not easy to be a hockey player in Ireland because it gets very expensive,” says Didi Cole, father of Ireland defender Lee. “And although the results of the men’s team have improved in the last few years, the change has happened because of the women’s team.”
Cole Sr is referring to Irish women’s team magical run at the World Cup in London earlier this year, where they defied all odds to reach the final. Although they lost to Holland, their performance brought the sport to national conscience, with government increasing the budget for hockey soon after the women’s team returned from London.
“What the women did to win the silver medal in the World Cup is unheard of. Because of that, we have had an improvement in funding from government and sponsors even though it doesn’t compare to the likes of other top teams who are funded full time. But it’s good that we don’t have to pay to play anymore,” Harte says.
For a nation with little hockey pedigree, it would appear that Ireland have achieved a lot in the last four years. But Harte isn’t satisfied. He cites the example of Belgium, who were around the same level as Ireland a decade ago. “When I received my first cap (in 2006), we were 18th or 19th in the world and Belgium were 15th or 16th,” he says. Today, Ireland are 10th in the world while Belgium are 3rd, having won a silver medal at Rio. “It gives you an idea of progression they’ve made.”
Ireland aren’t getting too ahead of themselves. They are simply targeting to enter the knockout rounds of the World Cup. For that, they will have to beat England on Friday. And If they do, it’ll ensure them of their best-ever performance at a World Cup. It’ll be another small step for a country that’s making rapid strides.
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