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Hockey’s potential depends on India, its fallen superpower

Hockey’s potential depends on India, its fallen superpower


ON 25 JANUARY Germany defeated England in a shoot-out, but not in a football tournament. This was hockey: the quarterfinals of the men’s World Cup in India. Hockey (field hockey, for North Americans) has a lot more in common with football: each team has 11 players, the idea is to push a ball into a goal, and the scores are of similar size. Both can fluctuate from frantic to sleep-inducing, even in the same match. Both combine teamwork and outrageous individual skills, such as a perfectly weighted pass or a mesmerizing dribble.

But in terms of popularity, there is no comparison. Even in Belgium and Germany, not many people will know that their national teams will meet in the World Cup final on Sunday. Hockey may be played in 137 countries, but it is a niche affair. North Americans prefer its violent cousin played on ice (although that too is declining in popularity). In many countries it is an amateur sport. The International Hockey Federation (FIH), the sports governing body, estimates that 30 million people regularly pick up a stick; on the other hand, hundreds of millions play football.

The financial gap is even wider. The FIHThe latest available accounts show it made $12 million in 2021 from media rights and other resources. That’s a pittance in addition to the income from FIFA, its football equivalent, which took in $766 million that year, even without a World Cup. And that’s before adding up the huge sums pouring into the wealthiest football clubs and leagues to which hockey has no equivalent.

If there’s a route to more popularity and money, it’s probably through India, a huge market with a hockey background, and would draw inspiration from cricket rather than football. For years before and after independence, hockey was the country’s most popular sport and India was the game’s superpower. Between 1928 and 1980, the national team won eight Olympic gold medals. (India has won only two golds in any sport since 2008 in the 10-meter air rifle and in 2021 in the javelin throw.) Pakistan was also once a titan, winning three Olympic titles. But the last one was in 1984. It didn’t even qualify for this World Cup.

Major changes in hockey contributed to the decline in South Asia. In 1976, the sport began to change the playing surface, from grass to artificial turf. The smooth surface allows the ball to zip around, promoting speed and fitness more than stick skill, which Indian and Pakistani players specialized in. Artificial turf was also expensive and therefore inaccessible to many poor Indians and Pakistanis. The abolition of the offside rule in 1992 was another blow, making long, lofty passes a faster path to goal than dribbling. Meanwhile, the subcontinent’s hockey slump coincided with an improvement in the cricket field, absorbing both attention and resources.

India’s obsession with cricket now sustains the sport worldwide. So, like their cricket brethren, hockey administrators too pin their hopes on the land. Three of the last four men’s World Cups have taken place there; ten of the event’s 15 sponsors are Indian. Before this tournament, a Belgian player grumbled that he would travel to India again, but he acknowledged that it is the only country that can regularly fill stadiums with 20,000.

Attempts to monitor cricket have so far failed. In 2013, the Hockey India League was launched, featuring teams owned by Bollywood celebrities and corporate honchos. It was intended to be a hockey version of the glitzy Indian Premier League (IPL), who transformed cricket. It ran out in 2017 when franchises struggled financially, but there are now plans to revive it.

Meanwhile, there are other efforts to revive the sport. The eastern state of Odisha leads the way. Hockey has always been popular there, as in the rest of India’s poor, tribal belt. (One theory is that wood for improvised hockey sticks is readily available in nearby forests.) The state government has spent 1 billion rupees ($12 million) sponsoring India’s national teams and another 2.6 billion rupees to upgrade the facilities and locations for this World Cup.

The success of all this may ultimately depend on the fortunes of the national team. Cricket boomed after India won the World Cup in 1983; the IPL came a quarter of a century later. The national hockey team has improved in recent years, earning a bronze medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and is ranked sixth in the world. But at this World Cup it lost to New Zealand in a play-off for a spot in the quarter-finals (see photo). There is much work to be done for the next chance to revive past glory: the Paris Olympics in 2024.




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