The World Hockey Federation last week announced that Odisha capital Bhubaneswar will host the 2023 men’s World Cup with a few matches to be played in Rourkela. This will be the first time any country will be hosting back-to-back World Cups but what did come as a surprise was FIH opting for the same venue.
The Odisha capital had successfully hosted the 2018 edition of the World Cup and the state government was also the principal sponsor of the tournament, making things extremely easy for Hockey India and FIH. But the obvious question on everyone’s mind was why the same host city again.
In a country as vast as India, one would have expected Hockey India to explore other options. While sources confirmed that a few more state associations were interested in hosting the World Cup, FIH went with Bhubaneswar simply because of the facilities available and total support of the government.
FIH president Narinder Batra had tried explaining the logic while addressing the media on the day of the announcement, stating, “the World Cup is the pinnacle of tournaments in hockey for the FIH. It needs to have a certain standard and, at present, only Bhubaneswar and Delhi have facilities up to that. Delhi is not possible because the stadium is completely occupied by the Union Home Ministry and severely restricting government rules.”
While it’s difficult to challenge Batra’s argument about the quality of infrastructure in Bhubaneswar, the question that begs an answer is whether Hockey India and FIH are killing the golden goose by hosting all the events given to India in the same venue.
Since the 2016 Junior World Cup in Lucknow, which was also a big success in terms of facilities and spectator response, all the FIH events and even the two Olympic qualifiers were held in Bhubaneswar. The city will also be the venue for India’s FIH Pro League matches in the coming year and hockey fans in other parts of the country would have wished that these one of matches could be held in other parts of the country.
But Hockey India CEO Elena Norman has insisted that no other venue, apart from Delhi, can fulfill all the requirements to host FIH events and even the travelling teams are now happy to play in Bhubaneswar.
“There are certain infrastructure requirements such as having four changing rooms, video tower facilities, rooms for FIH officials, technical officials, broadcast requirements, a mandatory second pitch as per FIH rules, etc that are lacking in other cities. At the moment, Bhubaneswar has the best infrastructure in the country to host top-level matches and it meets all the requirements of FIH and broadcasters.
“One of the reasons FIH was keen on India hosting quite a few matches in the Pro League this year was because all the foreign teams visiting were very familiar with the facilities and infrastructure at the Kalinga Stadium, thanks to the success of the FIH Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar in 2018,” she added.
Norman also pointed out that Hockey India did host bilateral series and other international matches in Lucknow and Bengaluru in the past two years. Lucknow hosted the French junior team while New Zealand, Bangladesh and Korean national teams played Test series in Bengaluru’s Sports Authority of India centre in 2018. Bhopal had also hosted the five-match Test series against Belarus women’s team in 2017.
Among these venues, Lucknow and Bhopal have all the other facilities that Norman listed apart from the second pitch in the same complex. However, both the cities do have an alternate pitch at another venue.
Hockey India sources insist that for FIH events to be held in any other state, it is important to have the support of the state government for infrastructure improvement and other facilities. The Akhilesh Yadav government had extended that support during the Junior World Cup and hence no one faced any problems.
It is in this area that the Odisha government, which also sponsors the Indian national teams, has scored over other venues. The state machinery has been prompt at sorting out any problems that the organisers face. The state government is also going to invest heavily in upgrading facilities in Rourkela as currently the only way to travel there from Bhubaneshwar is by train or road and it takes about seven hours. The Steel Plant has its own airstrip that would have to be upgraded for commerical flights to land there.
However, the very fact that Hockey India cannot think of any other alternative venue for even events like Pro League and Olympic qualifiers just shows how far behind India is in terms of hockey infrastructure.
It is a known fact that major international events are also a vehicle to rekindle interest in the sport. One would have expected Hockey India and their state associations to work with their respective state governments to plan and host such events at different venues to promote the game across the country.
Norman insists that Hockey India was bringing so many top events in the country to promote the game and doing all it can to spread awareness across the country. “One of the major reasons Hockey India invests in bringing down international events is to promote the sport. There is perhaps no other country in the world that has hosted as many international tournaments as we have in the past four years.
“We are also more focused on Hockey India Nationals which are hosted in Tier-3 cities with a primary focus to take the sport to regions that have not witnessed hockey and we will continue to do so in pursuit of developing the sport across India,” she added.
It is a known fact that most of India’s top stars do not play in these nationals any more as they are either attending camps or playing matches abroad. And with the Hockey India League also in cold storage, there is no other way for budding players to watch these stars in action live unless they make the journey to Bhubaneshwar every time the team is playing there.
Also what happens if the government stops supporting the sport or the Naveen Patnaik government doesn’t come back to power after its current tenure ends or the 73-year-old chief minister isn’t fit enough to continue and the next person isn’t interested in sports promotion. In such a scenario, Hockey India would probably be left with no backup plan as they are too comfortable with the current situation and have shown little inclination about developing other venues.
The quality of infrastructure and ease of business in Odisha notwithstanding, it is probably time for Hockey India to spread the web wider and find ways to create more venues that could host big-ticket international matches.