The failure of the Indian hockey team to make it to the summer’s Beijing Olympics has shamed many and left us Indians wondering where things went wrong in the national sport. Let us dig up its roots and find out where the shoe pinches.
The governing body of international hockey is the FIH (Federation d’ Internationale Hockey). Its Indian equivalent is the IHF (Indian Hockey Federation), which is being headed by Mr. KPS Gill for the past 14 years. The root cause of all trouble in India is that those who head such sporting bodies do not even distantly belong to the respective sport, and Mr. Gill is no such exception. It is time that only those who can feel the passion for the sport should take over the reigns rather than political bigots, who derive sadistic pleasure from occupying such portfolios.
India’s failure to qualify in hockey for the Beijing Olympics does not come as a surprise as we have failed to be consistent as well as strengthen our grip over our international rank for at least thirty years. However, Lady Luck seems to have smiled graciously upon us in the past. At the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, India earned gold not out of merit but out of sheer luck as the hockey tournament was marked by several withdrawals, such that we were virtually handed the medal. Till the year 1988, hockey qualifications were based on the ranking system, i.e. the top 12 of the world would battle it out in the Games. In the 1988 Olympic Games, India failed to qualify, based on its FIH rank. However, they eventually made it when South Africa pulled out of the event. Following 1988, the rank system was abolished and it paved the way for what are now termed as play-offs. The players of the hockey team do not get enough practice during the year and therefore get rusted.There is no National League, only mere State Leagues which are just a farce since the period is merely one to four months. Though the Premier Hockey League (PHL) plays an important role in providing the much-needed practice and experience to the players, it is a very short league indeed which is primarily targeted at money making by the organisers in the form of television rights and massive sponsorship deals. It is just shameless exploitation of players to set the cash registers ringing. Though world class players participate in the PHL and youngsters are handed a forum to showcase their talent, these players are employed by the teams they represent and not by the Government, leading to the absence of a certified competitive league. A league of superior quality and class will never need Bollywood icons to promote it. To make the criticism clearer, Great Britain, who beat us twice and prevented us from qualifying for the Olympics, has a National League comprising three divisions: Premier, First and National North-National South. Such is the level of competition, that for a team to enter the bottommost division, it has to participate in play-offs of their county leagues. The league is played on weekends for a period of eight months inclusive of a two-month winter break. What is more embarrassing is that all countries in Europe have Hockey Leagues and here we are showcasing a PHL while the Government squanders away money on cricket which already has the IPL and the rebel ICL.
It is arguably true that India is too vast a country to have a league. However, the solution to such a complex problem lies in innovative thinking. Like in the USA, basketball is divided into the NBA Eastern and the NBA Western Conference; India too can adopt a similar geographical scheme. Lack of exposure seems to be another problem creeping up on the face of Indian hockey.
Another major factor is that not many of our players play in the European Leagues. Dilip Tirkey may have done himself proud by playing for Dutch side, Klein Zwitzerland, Orissa Steelers in the PHL and The Indian Airlines in the State League, but that leaves very little in him to devote to the country. These leagues are not telecast on television which is filled with cricket and European football. Also, over the past few years, no tough opposition is willing to tour India, thus denying the Indian public from watching top level hockey. Mr. Gill is continuously harping on the fact that under his reign, India has won Silverware. What is interesting to note is that the Trophy Cabinet does not showcase any World Cups, Olympics titles or even the Champions Trophy (which they have failed to qualify for since 2005).
India’s recent victory in the Asia Cup 2007 ensured them qualification to the Hockey World Cup 2010, scheduled to be held at New Delhi, which itself is under doubt as the IHF has not adopted FIH’s Promoting India Hockey Programme. India also lacks effective guidance on the international front in the form of skilled coaches and training staff. Ric Charlesworth, former Australian player and coaching legend has hinted on numerous occasions that he would like to coach India. However, for the past few years, he has not received an affirmative decision from the IHF, who have only pacified him with informal contracts as the Technical Director, which was result of the FIH’s continuous pursuance. Gerard Rach was the first foreign coach to be employed by the IHF in a shock move from apparently a German Lower Division side. This has gone on to show that there are several potholes in Indian hockey’s path to success, most of which have been dug out by the Sports Ministry of the Government. Funds ought to be made available for not only cricket but hockey as well before it fades into oblivion; a day which I fear is not far.
[Image courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xclockwise/1692004538]