For a city that is equal parts old and new, Bhubaneswar has a character that symbolises both its aspects. The people are warm but the city itself is too well-planned, specially the newer areas, and is devoid of the uniqueness that marks its older sibling Cuttack. What stand out all around, however, are the huge hoardings welcoming the world to the city for the Hockey World Cup, the biggest sporting event ever in the state.
Come November 28 and the Odisha government would be hoping all its efforts in making the event a huge spectacle come together. And when it does, as it is likely to, a large part of the credit would go to the people of the city who have proven their love for the sport twice over already in the last four years.
Bhubaneswar, and Odisha by extension, is perhaps one of the last bastions in the country where hockey gets more eyeballs than cricket and hockey players remain bigger stars than cricketers.
The state government has done its bit to further stoke interest and excitement. Large, front-page advertisements across every national and vernacular publication, exhibition matches featuring some of the legends of the game, hockey clinics across schools in the city and outside, hoardings in every nook and corner of the city featuring top Indian hockey stars, huge ‘Heart beats for hockey’ installations at the airport itself and all along the route to the Kalinga Stadium and interactive activities to involve the public — the amount of traction it has tried to provide for the event has been unprecedented.
“It is amazing the kind of promotions they are trying to do. We saw the team members on a television show recently, there are promotional videos being made and they have even roped in the likes of A. R. Rahman and Gulzar to create the World Cup song. This kind of hype and marketing is needed, whether we admit it or not. Even back in 1982 when perhaps hockey had more recall, there was no such effort,” Mervyn Fernandes, one of the players at the 1982 Bombay World Cup, the first time India hosted the marquee event.
That was also the last major tournament to be played on natural grass, and Fernandes remembers how the arrangements were top-notch even back then, with all the teams being put up in five-star accommodations and provided the best of training facilities with good crowds at every game at the Wankhede Stadium. “But in terms of recognition there was still a struggle, and we must admit, the team also struggled then in terms of performances; we were unable to make the semifinals of big tournaments. All of it perhaps contributed,” Fernandes added.
To be fair, the crowd had always been there. In 2010, with the PA system malfunctioning during the Indian national anthem in its opening match against arch-rival Pakistan, the full house at the National Stadium in New Delhi, a city not particularly know for its love of the sport, did not miss a beat, making it one of the few standout moments for the team in the competition. Despite a bare minimum effort from a federation still finding its feet and the sport’s administration largely ad hoc, and India’s disappointing eighth-placed outing at a venue not very accessible, India games still managed a decent turnout.
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“Everything else aside, the 2010 edition did bring the sport to the forefront to an extent. I would say it was perhaps the beginning of a period of recognition for Indian hockey that has grown since then, thanks in no small measure to the Hockey India League (HIL) that made stars out of players. In terms of the team’s growth, there has been a huge development no doubt. I know rankings are always a tricky business in every sport but making the top five is not a small feat anywhere. So yes, 2010 did somewhere trigger it all off. As for now, social media has done more than its bit to make the players more known,” laughed Adrian D’Souza, the India goalkeeper back then and one of the key members of the side.
Upfront, another star from that side tends to differ. While admitting that the team’s profile per se might have increased, Deepak Thakur rues that the federation did not do as much as was possible to build on the awareness generated by the 2010 World Cup that also saw the Indian players go on an unprecedented strike ahead of the event. “It was for the first time people actually started knowing our names and faces. That should have been built on to further raise the sport. I do not deny that there is a lot of good that has happened to hockey and the team in the last eight years. But if we see the exponential growth in other sports in the same period, specially something like kabaddi, you will understand when I say that things could have been even better,” Thakur said.
He has a point, given the way the likes of Ajay Thakur, Rishank Devadiga and Anup Kumar have become household names now thanks to the Pro Kabaddi League.
In that sense, Indian hockey is yet to find an identity independent of its past that, howsoever glorious, last sparked in 1980. That was before anyone in the present team was even born. What all of them agree on is that the performance of the team on field and its marketing off field are intricately interlinked, with neither one today likely to survive on its own.
“Making the semifinals should be the aim right now. If that happens, the team profile will automatically increase. But then those performances have to be capitalised on,” Fernandes insisted.
“The team has done well recently. The players are doing their bit on field but they need to keep getting big results. If they do it consistently, and the media and federation promote them and there is more visibility — in terms of top-level competition being telecast — there is no reason why it cannot get better,” D’Souza agreed.
The Indian hockey team could not have found a better place or people to do it in front of. Odisha loves its hockey, as evident last year when the stands were packed in pouring rain for even non-India games. Even the exhibition match with past legends to inaugurate the revamped stadium saw people surrounding the players for more than an hour after the game for photographs.
Despite a bad-tempered loss against Pakistan in the 2014 Champions Trophy semifinals that saw Hockey India breaking off all bilateral ties and seeking an apology from the team, the crowd gave them a standing ovation. The hockey World Cup, in that respect, can truly be said to have finally come home.
But Thakur has the last word. “We missed the bus to reclaim lost space in public consciousness in 1982. We missed again in 2001, when we returned with the Junior World Cup. We missed yet again in 2010. If we miss it a fourth time now, it might just be the end of the sport as we know it in India. We cannot afford that,” he warns.
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