The Biju Patnaik International Airport in Bhubaneswar is awash with the Hockey World Cup buzz. The city is hosting it’s second consecutive World Cup and the enthusiasm and hype have only doubled this time around.
A replica of the gold and silver-clad trophy is on display and those arriving - Day-trippers, families, tourists, and even politicians are seen queuing up for a photograph with the trophy in the background.
Bala, a Chennai high school principal who loves the sport, only just finds out the World Cup is two days away. An hour later, he calls this correspondent, enquiring how he can get to Rourkela to watch India’s opening game. He was informed that the match tickets were all sold out, and the travel is an eight-hour-long train journey, which puts him off.
Rourkela’s addition to the roster is one of many differences between Odisha’s hosting of the tournament from 2018 to now. In the last decade, Odisha has slowly become the backbone of Indian hockey. The state government has provided the national teams with the infrastructure, funding and facilities to help recover the sport from its slumber.
Rourkela’s induction is a nod to Odisha’s own hockey legacy. The Sundargarh district, in which Rourkela is located, is considered ‘the cradle of Indian hockey’. The sitting Hockey India president and former India captain Dilip Tirkey, Michael Kindo and Prabodh Tirkey are among the prominent players to have emerged from this region. Amit Rohidas and Nilam Sanjeep Xess, who hail from the district, are defenders in the Indian team. Hence, it was no surprise that the tickets for the matches in Rourkela were sold out within a week of going on sale.
Thanks to those efforts, the Indian side, among the outside bets for the title four years back, sets out this time as one of the favourites to lift the cup.
Efforts to redevelop the city and produce a world-class hockey stadium suitable for the tournament cost the government over six hundred and fifty crore rupees.
Despite that, Rourkela is not the easiest place to get to if you want to turn up and support your team. Families of some of the overseas teams have decided against making the long trip to India. A few, though, have braved the logistical strains to experience hockey fever in the middle of nowhere. Not every requirement will be easily met in the remote city, a struggle Colin French, the New Zealand match official prepares for as he makes a last-minute shopping visit to a mall in Bhubaneswar before flying to Rourkela.
Just like in Bhubaneswar, one is greeted by a huge World Cup banner with a huge image of the state’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik outside the Rourkela railway station. The roads have been spruced up and the hawkers on the sidewalks have been removed. The city has gone through a significant paint job, and its just-about-completed crown jewel, the Birsa Munda Stadium, still has the smell of fresh paint in the air. Murals depicting the culture of the city, and flashy lights and street lamps have been erected along the length of the long roads leading up to the stadium. Again, Patnaik’s face is unmissable with his flex seen along the divider every 100 metres.
The road along the stadium on the afternoon of the opening day of the World Cup is building up in the excitement with people making their way to the venue and the fan parks. Around 4.30 p.m., there is a near-500 m long queue of fans waiting to get inside.
“I am excited about the match and I am sure they will do well [Rohidas and Neelam],” says Varun Khamari, a 60-year-old technician at Tata Power, who is among the line for his first-ever hockey game. ‘India jeethega [India will win]’ chants are belted out as fans get the colours of the national flag painted on their faces.
Just over half the capacity seats are filled up when England and Wales push off at 5 PM. England greets the crowd with a goal in just 35 seconds as the fireworks go off. And they go off for another four times as they race to a 5-0 win over their neighbours.
At full-time, the English players, for a fleeting second or two, may have felt like demigods on Indian soil. Just as they walk over to the North Stand to thank the 20,000-capacity crowd in attendance, huge roars go up around the stadium. The Indian team has, simultaneously, made its way to the turf for their pre-match drills.
The real pyrotechnics were reserved for the home team with a 90-second show before India’s game. As the skies cleared, it was Spain who nearly took the lead inside the first two minutes. But India rode out the threat before producing a World Cup moment to savour, scoring through the local hero Rohidas, who struck a fierce shot into the roof of the net to send the stands into thunderous raptures. Then Hardik Singh added a second in the second quarter, handing India a win in its campaign opener.
Much of the talk in the build-up to the game was about how India would manage the pressure and an expectant home crowd. The Men in Blue, in fact, thrived off their energy and expectations.
The goal was all-the-more special for Rohidas with his family in the stands. “My mother, my big brother, my big sister, my sister-in-law, my grandmother… There were so many of them, how can I name all of them?” he joked. “Playing at your home is a unique feeling and to play in front of the crowd is a lot of fun,” said a beaming Rohidas at the end of the game.
The goal from Rohidas and an India win at the packed Birsa Munda Stadium was the ideal start the local government and Hockey India would have hoped for as they hope to inspire and unearth more talents from Sundargarh.
And with a first taste of international hockey, the locals will continue to throng in numbers to make the most of this hockey festival at their doorstep.