Player power!

The IOA President Suresh Kalmadi addresses a Press Conference in the company of the hockey players.-PICS: PTI

Denied for long, the Indian hockey players decided to demand their due and got it, too. Vijay Lokapally takes a look at the episode.

The volcano had to erupt. For long, the Indian hockey players had allowed matters to “drift” and “suffered in silence.” True, a few protests had been quelled by the authorities in the past, but this one took everyone by surprise. “Pay or we won’t play,” the players were very clear in their demand. The authorities finally decided to pay, but not before a public spat that saw the players take on the administration in an unprecedented act of defiance.

“The players were justified,” said an angry Joachim Carvalho, a former international and coach. “I don’t have the money to pay,” pleaded Hockey India President A. K. Mattoo. The Sports Minister, M. S. Gill, offered his support to the players and requested for “time.” Even before the players could respond, the Indian Olympic Association President Suresh Kalmadi, stepped in to resolve the matter.

He offered to pay the players their “dues” and there were smiles all-round. Former international Dhanraj Pillay did the groundwork and paved the way for the players and the authorities to find a solution. The ‘National Game’ was saved from further embarrassment in a year when Delhi is to host the hockey World Cup (in February-March) and the Commonwealth Games (in October).

That it was a difficult period for Indian hockey was obvious. The players met the Hockey India officials in Delhi, agreed to put their strike on hold, but retracted the next morning on their return to the conditioning camp in Pune. It was a full-blown crisis and even the Chief coach Jose Brasa appeared worried. He sought immediate intervention from a senior official. Kalmadi responded and the players resumed their training.

Reflecting on the episode, many former players expressed their “joy” at the “victory.” But many also did not support the method that the players had adopted. Ajitpal Singh, Zafar Iqbal and Pargat Singh were some of the stalwarts who agreed that the players needed to be compensated “financially,” but then, also wanted them to continue with their training.

Public consciousness about India’s National Game to the fore on Puri beach.-

The players’ demands ranged from match fee, incentives, graded payments, insurance etc. “All accepted. They deserve it. But it can’t be arranged overnight,” said a distraught Mattoo, one of the most upright and highly respected sports officials ever. He later resigned from sports administration, hurt by the treatment he received from both the camps.

“Where is the performance?” one of the hockey officials asked even as he questioned the wisdom of the players demanding $100 a day as allowance on foreign tours and graded payment slabs of Rs. 12 lakh, 10 lakh and 8 lakh. “We are still among the top 10 countries of the world,” countered former captain M. M. Somaya.

“If our football team, ranked 140-plus in the world, can get decent sponsorship, why can’t the hockey team? Please don’t talk about just national pride. It was fine when I was playing. I played for pride. But then you need some money to keep yourself going. I know we have to perform, but then the team is among the best. Why can’t the federation market the game? I know it will not happen overnight, but then some effort has to be made. We have come a long way from playing barefoot on natural grass to pursuing glory on astro-turf. But let me tell you that you can’t excel by having a two-man federation. These officials do nothing for the game. I am happy to see the unity among the players and hope it translates into a medal on the field at the World Cup,” said Somaya, a Deputy General Manager (Brand and Public Relations) in Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited.

Somaya was supported by former international Mervyn Fernandes. “What is wrong if the players get some money? Do they not deserve it? Past players like me would talk about playing for the pride of the national flag. It holds true even now with these young players, but they should be paid well so that they can tackle the rough times later when they give up (playing) or don’t make it (in other walks of life) like others. I don’t think anyone should play for free in any sport. The players are fully justified in demanding graded payment and match fee and incentives. It is for the federation to raise the funds and believe there are people and corporate houses willing to help hockey,” Fernandes said.

Performances on the field would surely help the players in the longer run, but then the cupboard is bare. “We used to stay in dormitories but win trophies,” said a veteran player. “This is not international shame,” he said, referring to the players boycotting the training camp. “It was international shame when we failed to qualify for the Olympics (in 2008). It was also hardly worth remembering that India finished fifth at the last Asia Cup.

“I had raised my voice earlier too at the discrimination against hockey achievers. It is the duty of the federation and the government to work for the improvement of the game. The federation officials promote themselves and the government fails to check them. In the process, the players become slaves. Please pay the players, is all I would tell these insensitive federation officials. Hockey is very close to every Indian’s heart and let us not destroy this great game by denying what is due to the players,” said Carvalho.

The lack of infrastructure and financial assistance has left hockey bleeding. Few hockey players allow their children to pursue this game. “There is no security,” Somaya pointed out. Many domestic tournaments have died and the National Championship too has not been a regular event. This “revolt”, as some of the officials describe it, has attracted public attention with support coming from all quarters. How much of it will be beneficial only time will tell! But Indian hockey is headed for tougher times and the World Cup should provide the answer. A podium finish could change the face of the game in the country. If not, the ‘National Game’ would be the poorer for it.