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Wearing blinkers India watch from sidelines (1/21/2019)
--Errol D’Cruz
Not for the first time have India kept themselves out of a potential game-changing situation in the world of hockey. The financial heavyweights of the game had pulled out of the annual FIH Pro League which kicked off in Valencia on Saturday with Spain beating newly-crowned World Cup champions Belgium in a men’s match.

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The encounter produced everything. First, a thrilling draw in regulation time. Following that, a shootout that presented a novel system of point sharing (two for the winners, one for the losers). And finally, a result that thrilled the home fans – the presence and attention of whom has been the fulcrum on which the bold home-and-away globe-trotting event has been conceptualized.

India, however, will participate in the 2021 Pro League possibly as the 10th team but in the meantime stand to lose out on potential gains the event offers in terms of exposure and profile.

The eight-time Olympic men’s champions are notorious for withdrawing from tournaments. A few months after winning their only World Cup, India withdrew from the 1975 Pre-Olympic tournament in Montreal. It was here that teams were given a feel of the artificial surface ahead of the Games the following year in the same city where plastic pitches were used for the first time.

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They then missed the inaugural 1978 Champions Trophy in Lahore by which time India’s propensity to pull out of an event was all too well known. Organizers of an initially eight-nation invitational tournament in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1973, could well testify.

(Photo: FIH Site)
The Pro League which fields nine nations each in the men’s and women’s sections is a route to Olympic qualification. Other routes include the Hockey Series Open and the continental championships.

But the essence of a competition, unprecedented in the history of any sport, is the aim to broaden the sport’s profile. The call was answered faithfully and courageously by all nations involved with many disappointed at not making the grade.

Hockey India’s (HI) reason for pulling out has been its pessimism over the women’s team’s bleak prospects of qualifying for the Olympics via the Pro League route that advances the top four to the Olympic qualifiers. Furthermore, a relatively low ranking of No. 9 would then pit them against a much higher-ranked opponent in the last step towards booking a ticket to the Games.

HI, not given to the idea of fielding only the men’s team (now ranked No. 5), decided to pull out of the event altogether thereby ignoring the FIH view that the event bids fair to reduce hockey’s dependence on the Olympics.

It also appears that HI appears to be oblivious that hockey’s Olympic future – at least the 11-a-side game – cannot be taken for granted and that such an apprehension contributed to the inception of the Pro League. India failed to book a direct ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in both the men’s and women’s competitions by failing to win the gold medal at the Asian Games in Jakarta in August-September last year.

They will now play the Hockey Series Open later this year in the hope of, by HI’s reckoning at least, booking a place in the Olympic qualifiers.

Pakistan, India’s arch-rivals, are in the men’s section. Reeling from the paucity of funds and exposure caused by security issues and dwindling interest in the game at home, have found it important to be part of the movement.

Their ‘home matches’ however will be held in various cities overseas but one wagers the opportunity to participate in a league of such a dimension is likely to help the beleaguered former World Cup and Olympic champions spark a renaissance.

As many as 144 matches until the end of June will be televised live.

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand will play in the men’s and women’s leagues.

Pakistan and Spain complete the field in the men’s event, China and the US do so in the women’s. The league will lead to the grand finals for the top four finishers in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, towards the end of June.

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