'The subject of rule changes is complex'

S. THYAGARAJAN

WHEN Peter Cohen was elected unanimously as Secretary-General of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), the event marked the dawn of a new era in administration. He is the first secretary away from Europe working from his hometown, Melbourne in Australia.

Peter Cohen, a father of two and a professional lawyer, has the unique distinction of being honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia for his contribution to hockey.

Peter Cohen's experience in hockey administration is multi-facted - as player, selector, and official of the Victorian Hockey Federation and Hockey Australia, as council member, Secretary, Vice-President, and President. He is also a life-member of the Australian Olympic Committee. Since 1994, he has been part of the FIH in various committees, and also involved in the conduct of tournaments like the World Cup, Champions Trophy and the Olympic Games.

What was striking about the FIH elections at Brussels in April last was the elevation of Els van Breda Vriesman as the first woman President. She also shares the honour of being the first woman to be elected the Secretary-General from 1994-2001. Els is also a member of the IOC Council.

In this exclusive interview, through an e-mail questionnaire, Peter Cohen answers on a wide range of subjects to The Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you feel now after taking over as Secretary of FIH and what are your plans to enhance the image of hockey?

Answer: The position of Honourary Secretary General of the FIH is very important in the context of the administration of world hockey. It is therefore an honour for me to have been entrusted with this position, particularly as I am the first person from outside Europe to have occupied one of the top three positions.

In the past, without modern means of communication, it would not have been possible for a person to occupy this position, being so far away from Brussels. Today, with fax, phone and e-mail it is now possible and I hope I can perform my duties in a satisfactory and timely manner.

Since my election in April, I have set up my office, which is now fully operational. My experience so far is that I have been able to address all the issues, as and when they have arisen, without any difficulty caused by my location in Melbourne, Australia.

I am in contact with the FIH President and the FIH office on a very regular basis. When communication is by phone, fax or e-mail, it really makes no difference whether I am in Melbourne or Amsterdam or anywhere else in the world, except that there is a time delay. Melbourne is about eight hours ahead of Brussels time. Of course, I cannot drop into the FIH office as the previous Honourary Secretary General could but I don't think this is detraction. We will schedule three meetings of the Executive Board each year and, in addition, I will meet with the President and Executive Director on other occasions during the year.

There is all-round concern that hockey is losing its charm as a spectator sport mainly because of the frequent rule changes and due to artificial pitches. Do you agree with this assumption?

I do not agree with the assumption in relation to artificial pitches. If anything, I believe that artificial pitches have enhanced hockey as a spectator sport. I believe they have also enhanced the image of the sport in the eyes of the sporting world. On artificial pitches, the sport is seen as modern and progressive. There are fewer stoppages, the game flows and is easier to follow.

The subject of rule changes is complex. On the surface, it is understandable that some would feel that there have been too many changes but it is important to understand the underlying reasons. The FIH is conscious of the fact that hockey is an Olympic sport and we wish to retain that status. To do so, we must be mindful of the fact that the Olympic Games is a multi sport event where hockey is showcased against all other sports and must compare favourably. The sporting world is ever under the scrutiny of the TV cameras so we must ensure that our product is attractive to the wider spectator and commercial market.

In the past, hockey has been criticised as being too technical and difficult to understand, especially for the non-hockey playing public. The rules dictate the way the game is played so it is critical that we market our sport in the best possible light and this means trying to simplify the rules for the benefit of both players and spectators. Over the years, there have been many changes, which have received universal support and are now essential to our game. One such example is the replacement of the 25-yard bully with the 16-yard hit. There are many other examples.

But rule changes don't always deliver the expected result. An excellent example of this is the abolition of the offside rule. Everyone thought that, when the offside rule was abolished, there would be an immediate and significant increase in the number of goals scored and the pattern of play would become more open and exciting. While there has been an increase in the number of goals, there appears to be universal agreement that the pattern of play has become very congested. So, do we leave this situation or do we try and rectify it? What are the options? We could re-introduce offside, but I suspect that would be very unpopular. Another possibility is to make a further change to try and create space in the attack zone and to try and increase the opportunity for goals to be scored. I think everyone would agree that the excitement in any sport is to see teams creating many opportunities to score.

The FIH and the Rules Board take the view that we must continue in our quest to create a spectacle that is interesting to the TV audience and this means that we must continue in our quest to find the right formula. This has resulted in new experimental rules with the aim of limiting the number of defenders inside the defensive 25 and also to allow shots on goal in the same zone, that is, outside the circle.

I personally support these initiatives and look forward to the feedback once national associations have had the opportunity to try this experimental rules.

Do you feel that the present restructuring of administration will contribute to giving the FIH greater vibrancy in terms of decision-making?

The fundamental principle of management is that the body charged with the responsibility for management is fully accountable to the members. At the FIH Congress held in Paris in November 2000, the members of the FIH adopted new Statutes and Bye-Laws, which were designed to recognise this principle.

The new administration creates an Executive Board of 21 people who are elected and are responsible to the National Associations. It ensures gender equity, continental representation, a representative of the athletes and all committee chairpersons. In addition, the Executive Director attends all Executive Board meetings.

I am sure that this is a more efficient structure.

The FIH has adopted a strategic plan for the next four years and it is the Board's responsibility to ensure that the plan is implemented. The plan outlines our policies, objectives and priorities. When the Board meets, it will address the issues that are presented against the backdrop of the plan so I am sure we will have a very focused approach to our management and administration.

Will you go for further re-structuring, like enhancing the PR and marketing units to project a new image of hockey?

The new structure includes a restructure of the FIH Committees. The former Competitions Committee has been re-titled the Events/Competitions Committee (ECC) under the chairmanship of Steve Jaspan and the former Marketing Panel has been replaced with the Marketing Committee (MC) under the chairmanship of Bob Davidzon.

The main thrust of these changes is to recognise that we must enhance the presentation of our major events and that we must re-invigorate the efforts to market and promote the sport.

The ECC has formed a special working group to study ways and means of helping National Associations to present tournaments they are organising in a more professional manner as a hockey event and not just a hockey tournament. The MC has been re-formed with a small group of hockey people who have experience in marketing. The FIH has recently signed a marketing contract with Octagon CSI, a large multi-national marketing company based in London. The aim of the contractual arrangement is to seek sponsors of hockey on a worldwide basis. In addition, the FIH has signed a contract with the same company to act as our agent to sell the TV rights to all our major tournaments.

The former Communications and P R Committee has been re-constituted as the Communications Committee under the chairmanship of David Burt and will operate as a sub-committee of the MC. David's committee has responsibility for all communication issues, for example, the new FIH website and similar areas.

Finally, the FIH has employed two full time officers to work in these areas. Dennis Meredith, a former national player and international umpire, has been employed as the Events Manager and Steve Morris as the Marketing and Communications Manager.

At its meetings in July, the Executive Board has endorsed a recommendation from the Marketing Committee that we should adopt a philosophy that we want to play all our major tournaments in front of full stadiums. This is recognition that we in hockey must take the responsibility for our own product and that we can't market our sport to the media and the commercial world if that product is sub-standard. To define what is sub-standard is to say that our major hockey tournaments are our products. They must be presented as an event with excitement and pizzazz, with atmosphere and crowd involvement. With very few exceptions, hockey does not project this image and we must take steps to rectify what is, in fact, our own failing. Why should we expect others to support us if we don't lead by our own example?

Having said all that, it is clear that the FIH is committed to a programme to enhance the image and profile of the sport and, with this structure in place, I don't believe that there is any need for further re-structuring, at least in the short term.

The close fight for the top post to the FIH at Brussels has prompted a line of thinking that no more is the federation a homogeneous group. Do you agree with this?

No, I do not agree and I want to put any such thoughts to rest emphatically. It is true that the contest for the Presidency was very keenly contested and the final result was very close but I believe that the Federation has put the contest behind us and that we are now focused on the task in hand. Each member of the Executive Board has pledged his/her allegiance and support to the new President and we are now concentrating on carrying the work of the federation to fruition.

Do you advocate frequent changes in the rules?

I hope we can reach a stage in the near future where we can have a moratorium on rule changes because I think that it is desirable to create stability and certainty. But we must continue in our efforts to make the game more attractive and easier for spectators.

I am therefore very much in favour of the further experimental rules but will reserve my judgment on their success or otherwise until we have seen them under match conditions.

How successful is the YOTY programme? Will the FIH continue with this for the next year and ahead also?

The YOTY (Year of the Youth) project is one of the best, if not the best project that the FIH has initiated since I began my involvement in the administration of the sport. There is nothing more that I could plan to achieve. It has been a resounding success and the coaching and Development Committee, under the chairmanship of Theo Ykema, is now undertaking an examination of how to perpetuate the successes, which have been achieved this year.

Some 70 countries have participated in the YOTY programme, which is in itself a clear evidence of how successful it has been. It has reached all continents and all junior age levels, boys and girls. One outstanding feature has been the involvement of the volunteers in each country who have dedicated time and effort to ensure participation within their own countries. It is, however, a little too early to assess the overall success.

As to the future, it is again too early to say. What has become obvious is that the acceptance of the programme has been so universal and there has been such an outstanding level of participation, both in terms of number of countries and number of youth, that we have exceeded our wildest expectations. Thus, the challenge to world hockey is to find ways of capitalising on what has been achieved.

The Development and Coaching Committee will undertake the task of evaluating the success of the YOTY programme. Work has already commenced and will be completed later in the year, once all the available data has been collected. I am, however, confident that the programme will be continued in some form. All the indications are that the programme has met with a very ready acceptance from organisers and players alike so we must capitalise on the gains made and find ways of perpetuating the benefits for hockey over the coming years.

What is your assessment of contemporary hockey? Has the game grown or deteriorated in quality and content?

I believe that the game has grown in both quality and content. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement. I have commented earlier about the issue relating to rule changes. This is a vital factor and I don't think we have achieved a fully satisfactory position yet. We must continue to strive for a game that is more TV and spectator friendly. We must also achieve a higher level of player satisfaction, not only at international level, but at all levels.

The synthetic surface, which first appeared in the Montreal Olympics in 1976, is the most significant factor. Now 25 years later, we are still feeling the effects and we have not as yet found the perfect formula. In the early days, only top international tournaments were played on synthetic surfaces. This is not true now.

Synthetic surfaces have revolutionised the game, in respect of betterment, in my opinion. They create a level playing field for all participants and enable players to achieve a higher level of skill and enjoyment. They also create a more professional appearance for the game to media and to the spectators.

Would you agree that the players today are being subjected to too much of hockey?

Yes, I do agree that we are placing heavy demands on our top players/teams but I am not sure I know the solution. The demands are high because top players/teams are asked to compete at a number of levels from club to national, continental and then international level. Each level is important in its own right and a necessary step to get to the next level. But, once a player/team reaches the top, he/she must then maintain performance at all levels and this is where the demand reaches saturation point.

We must also bear in mind in this context that our sport does not generate sufficient sponsorships and other income to enable us to sufficiently remunerate our players commensurate with their commitment.

There seems to be a lot of confusion over the format. Having agreed to enhance the number for the World Cups and qualifiers to 16 will you advocate the two pool format or the 4 x 4 system? What in your opinion are the pros and cons?

When we increased the number of teams to 16 for World Cups, junior and senior, we also introduced the four pools of four teams format. This new system was first played at the women's Junior World Cup in Buenos Aires and then at the men's World Cup Qualifier in Edinburgh.

Even before these two events, we had received representations from the hosts of the men's World Cup (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and the women's World Cup (Perth, Australia) to change the format to a competition of two pools of eight teams. The arguments were that the 4 x 4 had too much uncertainty in many areas. First, the match schedule would only be known for the first rounds so spectators would not be able to buy tickets to watch their teams for subsequent rounds. Second, if the host did not qualify for the second round, then marketing and TV potential would be severely reduced.

The experience in Buenos Aires and Edinburgh confirm these apprehensions so at the meetings in July the Executive Board decided to adopt the 2 x 8 format for the subsequent competitions. This decision was warmly received by Kuala Lumpur, Perth and for the Women's World Cup Qualifier. However, the organisers of the Junior World Cup (Hobart, Australia) decided to retain the 4 x 4 format. Their concerns were based on an assessment that the change to the 2 x 8 format would be costly and they were not confident that they could recoup this extra cost.

The advocates of the 2 x 8 argue that there is much more interest in the tournament for a longer period as teams vie for a place in the semi-finals. The chances of teams qualifying for the semi-finals are kept alive longer in the 2 x 8 format and thus interest is sustained. If the chances of the host country's team qualifying for the semi-finals are maintained for longer, this will also enhance local support through the gate and also in the media.

This is particularly so in a country like Malaysia where very big crowds can be expected, especially during the Malaysian team's matches and more so as long as Malaysia have a chance of qualifying for the semi-finals. It also maintains interest in other matches. Even if a team is out of contention, it can still influence the final outcome of the tournament as a result of performance against other teams still vying for a place in the semi-finals.

There are, however, some views being expressed that 16 teams are too many for qualifying tournaments and also for Junior World Cups. These are issues that the FIH will consider in the near future. There is not so much pressure to make a decision because the qualifiers and Junior World Cups have now been completed and will not come around again for a couple of years.