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Pro League
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PL 2019: Home and Heart: Pro-League makes a statem (2/5/2019)
--Errol D’Cruz
Five out seven matches in the inaugural men’s FIH Pro League have been thrillers producing a heap of goals. The other two have also been high scoring encounters. The ambitious project couldn’t have hoped for a better start.

As many as 51 goals have been scored and three high-scoring matches have gone to the shootout. One could well say the Pro League has so far lived up to its aim of presenting “big, bold, packed and loud” fan experiences as the men’s league followed a route from Spain to New Zealand and Australia.

The women’s league has also been keenly fought with just one match out of six decided by a two goal-margin. Another went to the shootout as the league has made its way from Argentina to New Zealand and Australia.

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There was an air of expectancy as Spain and newly crowned World champions Belgium took the pitch on January 19 to kick off the league in front of a packed ground in Valencia. The teams responded magnificently, especially Spain, who came back from the dead to draw 2-2 after being down 0-2 with less than three minutes to go.

The Red Sticks then won in a shootout to grab a bonus point, thrill their fans and epitomize everything that the Pro League, a global home-and-away competition, stands for.

The “home” concept, the Pro League’s USP, is crucial to give hockey the vital fillip to cement its place as a major global sport.

As many as 128 matches mark the round-robin league stage, each a “home” game -- a format that evokes the support of hard-working hockey communities the world over to get behind their teams.

At the 2010 Men’s World Cup in New Delhi, then FIH president Leandro Negre bore a worried look. “I am happy with the crowds for the India matches,” the Spaniard said. “The non-India matches worry me.”

The situation typifies hockey. World Cups held down the ages have drawn huge crowds when the hosts play. But it appears hockey has some way to go before overseas stars and teams turn regular crowd pullers.

As of now, besides games involving the home nation, attendances swell only for the final and perhaps the marquee India-Pakistan match whenever it occurs. Packed houses have been a feature at the league so far, suggesting the FIH have been spot-on in its feasibility study.

Six months in duration, the league has circumvented the club vs country quandary and allows for squads of 32 each. The vast number of players available also helps teams lessen the stress of inordinate travel, as, in Belgium’s case, from Spain to Argentina and then to New Zealand and Australia!

Such flexibility has enabled Valentin Verga and Robbert Kemperman assist clubs in Malaysia as the Dutch embarked on their tour of duty that took them Down Under.

The mix of flexible squads and cross-continental travel seem to have had their say in stupendous encounters.

Hosts New Zealand’s men, for example, fought back from a 0-3 deficit against the Netherlands, the World Cup runners-up, before losing 3-4.

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The Kiwis did likewise against travel-weary Belgium, forcing a 4-4 draw after trailing 2-4 before losing in a shootout.

Then, Australia’s women beat the Netherlands 1-0 for the first time in almost 10 years. The very next day Belgium, the Red Panthers, achieved their first ever win over the Hockeyroos by the same scoreline.

With TV coverage assured, the Pro League promises to render field hockey – never at the pinnacle of sponsorship in the world of sport – a chance to emerge from the fringes.

And a prize purse of $250,000 across the men’s and women’s events suggests hockey has come a long way from a fuddy-duddy approach that denied awards of a car each to individual prize winners at the Indira Gandhi Gold Cup in New Delhi way back in 1995.

There’s been a dismal fall-out, however. That of four-time World champions Pakistan pulling out of the men’s competition owing to a lack of funds and, in the process, missing out on a chance of securing a spot in the Olympic qualifier for the first four finishers.

The pro league, they say, follows the sun. With winter at its severest in Europe, save sun drenched Spain, the competition moved to warmer climes in Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.

Perhaps, there’s a little too much sun at times. With prime time television ostensibly taken up by more affluent sports – football in Europe for instance -- matches have made do with early time slots, some at 11 in the morning.

Shadows on the pitch do not make for ideal viewing of a sport where a little white (or yellow) ball amid, at times, a maze of feet and sticks doesn’t lend itself to television as it would under floodlights.

All said and done, however, the Pro League bids fair to be hockey’s game changer. And even if some mourn the discontinuation of the Champions Trophy (a league for the top six nations) which made way for the Pro League, the “home” concept may just about give the sport a new lease of life.

RESULTS SO FAR:
MEN: Spain 2 Belgium 2. Spain won 2-0 in SO. Spain 5 Great Britain 6. Argentina 2 Belgium 4. New Zealand 3 Netherlands 4. New Zealand 4 Belgium 4. Belgium won 4-2 in SO. Australia 5 Netherlands 5. Netherlands won 4-1 in SO. Australia 1 Belgium 4.

WOMEN: Argentina 2 Belgium 0. New Zealand 0 Netherlands 1. New Zealand 0 Belgium 1. Australia 1 Netherlands 0. Argentina 2 USA 2. Argentina won 3-1 in SO. Australia 1 Belgium 2.

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