India’s pullout hints at friction with world body

It was being touted as the biggest competition in hockey, but India will not be part of it when the Hockey Pro League makes its debut in 2019. Hockey India has withdrawn its teams from the tournament, which the International Hockey Federation (FIH) is projecting as the most prestigious after the Olympics and the World Cup.

The FIH, late on Saturday night, confirmed that Hockey India had withdrawn from the upcoming Pro League and said it will soon name a replacement.

“FIH has received confirmation from Hockey India that they have withdrawn from the Hockey Pro League. Whilst we regret Hockey India’s decision not to be involved in this exciting new global League, we have replacement teams available following an application process which was oversubscribed,” it said in a release.

“Our Event Portfolio Implementation Panel will convene a meeting to discuss the practical implications of a team withdrawal including formally inviting replacement teams to participate in the men’s and women’s League,” the FIH informed, without giving any reason for this drastic step by Hockey India.

Speculation was rife since Saturday evening after an international website claimed that Hockey India had pulled out of the Pro League. With Hockey India refusing to confirm or deny the news, it was left to sources to give various reasons for the pull-out.

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From 2019, the Pro League will be one of the main qualification tournaments for Olympics and World Cups, offering as many as four qualifying berths – – the rest being distributed between Hockey World League (HWL) and continental championships. It will be played from January to June every year on home and away basis between nine top teams of the world, with matches being held every weekend.

Though many of the nine invited countries had reservations about the timing, duration and format of the Pro League, as it will not only impact their international schedule but also their domestic fixtures, they still signed up for the tournament considering the fact that FIH plans to develop it into its flagship competition.

By withdrawing from the Pro League, Hockey India has taken the bull by its horns. One of the reasons that some Hockey India sources are citing are is that they don’t see it helping the India women’s team in qualifying for the Olympics or World Cup. With nine of the world’s top teams in the fray, Hockey India is convinced that the India women’s team may not get one of the four berths. Ditto for the men’s team.

As the option of playing in both the Pro League and the World League simultaneously was not there available, Hockey India saw better chances in taking the HWL and continental championship route, claim sources.

Among other reasons doing the rounds are Hockey India’s concerns over Pro League’s impact on Hockey India League (HIL) which is usually held in January-February every year and will have to be rescheduled to November-December, when it is likely to compete with leagues in other sports for eyeballs and sponsors.

There is a strong feeling in hockey circles that the recent deterioration in Hockey India’s relations with FIH too has played a role in this latest breakdown.

Many in FIH are still not happy with Hockey India getting the India men’s team to wear black armbands during the match against Pakistan to protest death of Indian soldiers by the neighbouring country and the subsequent comments by FIH president Narinder Batra.

They are also not happy with Batra’s tirade against Hockey World League Semi-Final hosts England on the questioning of Sardar Singh by local police over an old complaint by an England woman player against the former India captain.

Though Hockey India has termed the move to question Sardar Singh soon after a crucial match as an alleged attempt at match fixing, not many are convinced by these arguments and are accepting the explanation by England that it can’t interfere in police investigation. Such people have also not liked the social media posts by Batra and therefore see India’s withdrawal from the Pro League as retaliation.

They claim that Hockey India is trying to quell the voices rising against Batra, who still has a stranglehold on Indian hockey, by flexing its financial muscle. More than 50% of FIH’s revenue come from India and no competition will succeed without the support of India.

Whatever is the reason for its withdrawal from the Pro League, one hopes Hockey India would have taken into account the impact of the decision on its own league and competitions.

Pulling out of a competition involving top teams of the world will not only deprive the Indian teams a chance of playing against tough competition and an opportunity for qualifying for major FIH events, but will also rob HIL of services of top players who will be representing their country in Pro League.

B Shrikant |Hindustan Times, Mumbai
Images: Getty Images

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