World hockey looking at India as major hub for the sport

New Delhi: Indian hockey may be taking baby steps in seeking to regain its erstwhile stature, with its qualification for the London Olympics being among the first of them, but the country has no doubt made a quantum leap to become the marketing hub for the game that was once dubbed its national sport.

After successfully hosting the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and now the 2012 London Olympics qualifiers, everyone is looking at India with a lot of expectations.

The shopping list is not over. Later this week, the World Series Hockey (WSH) is being launched and to challenge it, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) is planning an IPL-style Hockey India (HI) league later this year. The FIH has also given India the rights to host the final of the men’s World League, which will now replace the qualifiers.

Four years ago, few would have visualised such dramatic turn of events when the sport plunged into depths of despair after the men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics (2008 Beijing) for the first time in 80 years.

That disaster in the Olympic qualifiers at Santiago in Chile pulled down the entire hockey edifice in the country. The national federation, then the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF), went into hiding after charges of corruption, including allegations of cash for selection of players, and it was superseded by Hockey India (HI).

More trouble followed when the courts refused to okay the decision of the Indian Olympic Association, thus paving the way for rival national bodies. The players were up in arms over the wages. Mercifully, the game carried on.

HI and the IHF continue to haggle over the control of the national body with the FIH and the sports ministry standing on either side.

But with FIH backing HI, the national team’s revival went on unhindered. The country got a lot of praise for the way the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games hockey competitions were organised and FIH is now convinced that India is the pivot for the growth of world hockey.

FIH president Leandro Negre now wants cricket-crazy India to be the focal point of men’s hockey just as soccer-mad Argentina is for women’s hockey.

“We want India to host an international every year. We want India to be the central point for men’s hockey just as Argentina is for women’s hockey. There is a lot of potential for the sport in the country and there is pride as well due to its glorious history of the game,” Negre said.

Negre appreciated the de-recognised IHF’s plan to start the WSH, starting Wednesday, though the FIH calls it an unrecognised event. All the same the league aims to inject the glamour quotient to the game, a la IPL. From Bollywood stars to industrialists, everybody wants to get associated with the eight-city franchise league.

The FIH has threatened to ban players and officials taking part in the WSH, and players are in a quandary because they stand to earn Rs.15-20 lakhs from the 33-day event and if they decide to play they will be shut out from all major international tournaments.

To counter the WSH, the FIH has announced its own league with HI to be played later this year.

“The WSH is a good idea, we appreciate it, but we will recognise only tournaments that are held by HI. We will also start a league with HI after the Olympics,” Negre said.

But the WSH has already created a hype and international tyre major Bridgestone has come on board as its title sponsor.

“The WSH is a revolutionary concept and we want to be a catalyst in promoting India’s national game amongst millions of passionate fans. The WSH is a natural extension of our marketing philosophy. We look forward to a long-term win-win association,” Hiromi Tanigawa, Managing Director, Bridgestone India Pvt. Ltd, said.

Yannick Colaco, chief operating officer of Nimbus Sports, promoters of WSH, hoped the league would change the landscape of hockey.

“The World Series Hockey is all set to wow the hockey enthusiasts around the world with unmatched skills and excitement. It is indeed a landmark moment to have a reputed international brand like Bridgestone begin its association with hockey through WSH,” he said.

Whatever be the level of WSH success, if it can sow the seed for a banyan hockey tree it would have served its purpose. From there on the FIH and HI can take over and plant more such trees.