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FIH CEO: need to bring hockey to people (12/10/2018)
--Errol D’Cruz
He brings with him the know-how of marketing a billion-dollar sport like football. Thierry Weil, former marketing director of Fifa, however, exudes a passion for hockey even while learning the sport he had little knowledge of before joining the FIH as its CEO in April this year. undefined The Frenchman, though, believes that his views as a relative outsider may at times be considered “stupid or crazy” but could go a long way in stimulating thought and action among hockey’s fraternity whom he cherishes for their loyalty and passion for their beloved sport. Weil, 59, visited Bhubaneswar to witness the 14th Men’s World Cup and took time from his busy schedule to share his thoughts with and ideas about hockey as he embarks on fulfilling his mandate in developing and taking the sport to a new level. undefined

Excerpts from an interview:

You have said very clearly that you want the World Cup to be hockey’s No. 1 event. Please elaborate. Given that I have come from football, I would like the World Cup to be the most prestigious event. In football, a nation aspires to be No. 1 in the world by winning the World Cup. When I came to the FIH, I learned how important the Olympic Games are and the importance of the support of the local Olympic committees. But for hockey itself, it would be great for teams to get involved in the World Cup and the games leading to it. At the end you can name yourself the No. 1 team in the world. How beautiful it would be to have your very own event as the most important. You can bring the World Cup to countries who want to play host, develop hockey and make a big impact.

How can we make the World Cup the No. 1 hockey event?
It’s just that when you have venues like this today (the Kalinga Stadium) with 15,000 seats filled, players will see the difference sooner or later. At the Olympics, hockey is one sport of many. The 2024 Olympics will be hosted by Paris. Currently, hockey is not well known in France and we may have a big mission to draw spectators to fill the stadium. But we will achieve it. As for the World Cup, we hope to hold it in rugby and football stadiums that are bigger. We may use temporary pitches and huge infrastructure that will make the World Cup bigger. undefined

Is this achievable in the near future?
Yes, this is definitely achievable. Look at the atmosphere here (at the Kalinga stadium). I am not sure if the players have played before such crowds of 15,000-16,000. Most of them have played in front of just 4,000-5,000 spectators.

Is hockey’s place in the Olympics in doubt?
No, not at all. This was something discussed in 2013 and now it’s completely out of the way. The first thing that I did after joining the FIH was to visit the International Olympic Committee (IOC) office in Lausanne (Switzerland) where we also are based and to check it out. The IOC says that they are now happy with the development of the sport and especially Hockey Fives. The most ongoing discussion at the IOC is about which sport remains in the Olympics and which goes out. In 2013, there was a wake-up call to make hockey more attractive and exciting and it led to the FIH mission to develop the sport. This was when the ‘hockey revolution’ (to develop a global game to inspire the next generation) was launched.


Tell us something about the Hockey Fives movement
At the recent Youth Olympics (in Buenos Aires, Argentina), hockey (Fives) was named the best sport – above all others. It was the best visited and perceived sport. It may have been the Fives but it’s still hockey and is the best way we can spread the game globally. There are no penalty corners here and goals can be scored from anywhere on the pitch. Fans find it easy to follow the game and may come back again.

Will Hockey Fives replace 11s in the Olympics?
The 11s will stay but our goal was to have both versions in the Olympics.

What would you like to bring into hockey?
It may sound arrogant but I would like to bring something into hockey. It’s a really nice sport. After watching my first few games I would like to communicate to people outside of the hockey community about the beauty of the sport. Hockey is all about complete respect and complete fairplay. You seldom see a player going against a decision, moaning to the umpire or pretending to be injured and lying on the ground as in some other sports…this is a team sport that will provide an education for us. But first, we need to promote hockey. The outside world doesn’t know much about the sport. It is confused with ice hockey. So, we need to inform people on how good the sport is – about its physical beauty and other elements in there. undefined

Do you think the rules of hockey are too complex?
The sport is simple. The ball crosses the line (after being played by an attacker in the D) and it is a goal. The team that scores the most goals wins the match. But then, it is true that when a spectator watches a game for the first time, the rules appear complicated. We need certain rules for safety but we need to review other rules to make the game as simple as possible and understandable for non-hockey people. Players and coaches who experience the rules everyday need to look into it.

Artificial surfaces are not accessible to many in the world. As a result the number of players have dropped in India and Pakistan among other nations. Is there a solution?
We have addressed these issues at our congress. We want to make it clear that it is not necessary that artificial pitches be used at lower levels. At the top level, we need such surfaces but the FIH congress has made it clear that hockey can be played on any surface at lower levels and we are open to the Hockey Series Open being played on grass if a nation doesn’t have an artificial pitch available. This would enable far more countries participate and they could progress to the next level and play on an artificial surface. The impression that hockey should be played only on artificial surface has shrunk the number of players. Therefore you don’t see half of the hockey family. We are also working on alternative pitches to water-based one as we don’t want to be seen as a sport wasting water. In England the traditional (England vs Scotland) annual women’s match at Wembley drew 65,000 schoolgirls who watched along with the Queen. It’s a real pity that it was discontinued in 1991 because hockey moved to artificial surfaces. undefined

How could we go about and draw more of the general public to hockey?
We need to make sure that people understand that all you need is a stick and a ball. Look at football, the best players come from the beach (in Brazil) and streets and often have played with a ball made of plastic bags bound together. At the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, people could play hockey on a little field with long grass. You need just a few friends to play a 3 vs 3 game, People could have fun ….you miss the ball because of the grass, and it bumps over your stick. But who cares! It’s fun. We need to bring hockey to people not wait for them to come to the stadium. We could organize a game in a town square for example.

Your thoughts on the Pro League due to start in January…
The Pro League will help us to have a consistent base in the markets – on TV and in front of people. It could also help more kids take to the game in the hope of earning from it as there would be prize money on offer. Six months in a year would allow people to consume more of hockey as a professional sport. The business case has been done. Yes, there is the risk but everything in life involves risk. Without risk you can’t go ahead. Eleven nations have agreed to come and share that risk with the FIH. The Pro League could inspire the grassroots which is the start of everything. undefined

Are you disappointed that India will come into the Pro League only in 2021?
It all happened before my time. There were many reasons why India were not in. India coming in would take the pro league on to another level. The beauty of it is we could review the situation of the first two years, update and upgrade it in time to welcome a big country like India.

Your thoughts about India in the context of world hockey?
I did not know too much of hockey before I joined the FIH. I knew that hockey was big in India, Pakistan and the Netherlands where I worked. My plan is to go back 20 years when hockey in India was huge. The FIH plans for India and world hockey are not extreme. If people dismiss my plans as useless, we need to show them those old videos and pictures. We need to see 70,000 people watch the World Cup final in Lahore once more. We need those Wembley games again. This is what hockey has. This is what hockey needs!

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