When he was a child growing up in hockey crazy Sundargarh district, Vijay Kumar Lakra always knew where to find the best seat to watch a game.
Local weekend matches, with a prize of a chicken or a goat, are held by nearly every village in this part of the state of Odisha. They routinely draw crowds of hundreds of spectators, so space is at a premium.
“People are gathered all around the pitch. If you are a little late you won’t have any way to watch. So then you might have to climb a tree to get a good view,” says Lakra, who went on to play hockey for his state and now coaches at the Rourkela Sports hostel – one of the state's premier academies to groom hockey talent.
Lakra doesn’t plan on fighting for space in a few months' time when Rourkela hosts the hockey World Cup early next year.
Matches will be held in the yet to be complete Birsa Munda stadium that will seat some 20000 fans – the most in any hockey stadium in the country. And while construction is in full swing at the stadium which appropriates the Rourkela’s reputation as a steel city – is being constructed predominantly out of the alloy – Lakra already has an idea where he’s going to sit.
He points to the top tier of the spectators' seating gallery along the halfway line of where the pitch will be laid out.
“Once this stadium gets built, I’ll sit there. That’s the best place to watch. That’s where you can see everything. You will be like a bird watching the match. There’s no better place to watch hockey than that place in this stadium,” says Lakra.
While Lakra’s eyes will be on the field, the stadium itself is just one part – albeit the centrepiece – of Rourkela’s transformation in preparation for the 2023 Hockey World Cup to be held in January next year.
Some 130 crores is expected to be spent on the stadium alone – the lion’s share of the Rs 650 crore that the Odisha Government is spending to get the city in shape for the world event.
“The administration has launched projects worth approximately Rs 650 crore, excluding the cost of the main stadium, which is estimated at Rs 130 crore,” says district collector Nikhil Pawan Kalyan. “The stadium will be the hub of activity but other parts of the city will benefit from it as well,” says Kalyan.
An airport is being built to handle commercial flights, roads are being widened, sports and recreation centres are being developed, the city’s drainage system is being fixed and even another bridge is being constructed over the Brahmani river.
“There’s work happening in every corner of the town. We are building for the World Cup but we are also looking beyond it,” says Kalyan.
The focus, as Kalyan too says, remains sport.
Indeed the Rourkela stadium is just the latest sports project on which the Odisha state government has been investing significant sums on.
While the Rourkela Stadium is expected to be one of the showpiece structures of the 2023 World Cup, the state government has been also working to provide smaller, multipurpose venues throughout the state.
In Sundargarh alone, the district is coming up with 16 hockey Astro turfs.
All this is part of the “Sports for Youth, Youth for Future” thrust that is making Odisha an ideal environment for sports culture, says R Vineel Krishna who is the state’s sports secretary. “The idea is to give the right tools to these youngsters. With this, these young people will start training on turf very early in their formative years,” Krishna says of this initiative.
It isn’t just hockey that is benefiting.
At the state capital’s Kalinga Stadium sports complex, multiple facilities catering to other sports – including an indoor athletics arena, tennis stadium and a badminton complex are coming up.
In time the state, which has already conducted the Asian athletics championships at the Kalinga Stadium in 2017, and which will host the U-17 Women's World Cup later this year, is expected to bid for other sports events as well.
The immediate priority, of course, will be hockey.
The state has a long association with the sport contributing to the Indian team, both in terms of players – Sundergarh district alone has produced over 85 internationals – and in terms of financial support – the state has been the principal sponsor of the Indian men and women’s hockey teams for the past five years.
Since 2018, the Kalinga Stadium has become the permanent training base for both the men’s and women’s hockey teams.
But while the stadium in Bhubaneswar is the established venue, it is the return of international hockey to the Birsa Munda complex in Rourkela which is perhaps more poetic.
While Bhubaneswar was originally meant to be the sole venue of the World Cup, it is learned that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik made the last-minute decision just under a couple of years ago to bring the tournament to Rourkela and construct a brand new stadium there.
It’s a call that might have resulted in a race against time to get the stadium ready but also objectively the right one. Rourkela is after all right in the middle of the tribal belt that has served as a reservoir of talent Indian hockey has always drawn from.
“This will be huge for tribal kids,” says Dilip Tirkey, former captain of the Indian hockey team who himself hails from the region. “Until now Rourkela did not even host an international match. Now, a World Cup will take place there. Just imagine,” he says.
The youngsters in Rourkela are themselves looking forward to watching world-class hockey at home. Youngsters of the Bishan Das Sports Club who train in an empty field just a couple of kilometres from the under-construction stadium certainly think so.
“I have seen a lot of matches in the Panposh sports hostel,” says John Paul Kandulna who practises with the club. “This time I am looking forward to watching an international match. Live match kabhi nahi dekha hai (I haven’t seen a live hockey match ever). We can pick up a few skills from the international players for sure,” he says.
Even once the World Cup ends, players and coaches think they will continue to benefit.
“It will be great to watch matches here, but the real benefits from this stadium will come in a few years' time. Once the World Cup ends, I have been told players from the hockey academies of Rourkela and Sundergarh will be allowed to practise at the stadium. Imagine the amount of confidence a young player from a village will get when he realises he is playing on the same turf that a World Cup player has played. Won’t that give him the self-belief to think he can play there as well,” says Lakra.