INSPIRATION FOR GOALS
Some sports pundits have been averring that it will be a miracle if the Indian hockey team snaps its 43-year-long World Cup drought at the event’s 14th edition, which is being held at the now-famous Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
Although India has been the most successful hockey nation at the Olympics, having won a total of eight gold medals in the history of the Games, the first and the last time it ever lifted the World Cup trophy was far back in the mid-seventies.
There is no denying that the current Indian team has looked very promising under its latest coach Harendra Singh. After Singh joined the team six months ago, India has not only won the Asian Champions trophy, but also bagged a silver and bronze at the Champions Trophy and the Asian Games, respectively. Even before Singh’s arrival, India had managed a face-saving fourth position at the Commonwealth Games held earlier this year.
But the World Cup, which will feature the best teams not just from the Asia-Pacific region but from around the globe, presents a different – and much more difficult – ball game altogether.
Playing on home turf in front of the hockey-loving people of Odisha, Team India will get all the support that it can possibly hope for, but there will be no easy matches right from the very start. Placed in Pool C [the World Cup features four pools comprised of four teams each], India will most probably have to take on bona fide title-contenders Belgium for the top spot in order to earn a direct entry into the quarterfinals.
Besides, it is noted, the pool also features South Africa – so-called minnows but never to be underestimated considering their history as a great sporting nation.
Then if India does make it past the pool stage, it may have to face strong Cup contenders such as Germany and Holland, four-time World Cup winners Pakistan and Malaysia – not to mention twice defending champions and firm favourites Australia.
So, as those experts have been rightly suggesting, India faces a tall order. An uphill climb that will need nothing less than consistently inspired performances by Team India for it to have a chance of hoisting the biggest, most coveted and most prestigious trophy in the world of hockey.
The good thing is our team does not need to look far for inspiration; it just needs to look around.
Although the foundation stone for the Kalinga Stadium was laid by the legendary statesman and visionary Biju Patnaik 40 years ago, it truly developed into a world-class sports venue only over the past decade thanks only to his son, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
Just before the turn of the millennium, Odisha was only known to the rest of the world either as nothing more than the home of its centuries-old famous Jagannath Temple, or as the unfortunate victim of the supercyclone of 1999, or as a land of tribals, or as a drought-ridden state of the starving poor who had to sell their own children for food and money.
All that has changed – slowly but surely – over the past 18 years, ever since Naveen came to power.
Thanks to his welfare schemes, nobody in the state dies of starvation or is forced to sell their children for money. Despite facing many odds, Odisha has managed to become one of the most business- and investment-friendly destinations of the country. And the state capital of Bhubaneswar, which many people across the nation had never even heard of until two decades ago, has emerged has the smartest [read technology-enabled] city in the country.
Yet Naveen, despite having served as the Chief Minister of Odisha for a record four consecutive terms, has never seemed to rest on his laurels; he has kept setting higher goals after every accomplishment.
Before, and better than most, political leaders of his time, Naveen seemed to have realised the importance of sports in nation-building and bringing people together. Just as importantly, he also perhaps reckoned that sports could raise the profile of Odisha on the national and international scene more effectively and swiftly than any other industry could.
Therefore, a good few years ago, he set his sights on making Bhubaneswar the sports capital of the nation. And he has not stopped since.
With every passing year, Kalinga Stadium has become better equipped to host bigger and higher number of state-level, national, and international sporting events. Of course, hockey has been a prime focus area.
Starting from the Hockey Champion’s Trophy in 2014, to the Men’s Hockey World League [organised by the International Hockey Federation] last year to the biggest one of them all – the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2018 – Naveen seems to have reminded this country time and again that there is more to sports than just cricket and that it is hockey that was once widely deemed to be the national sport of India. Early this year, after Naveen announced his decision to sponsor the Indian hockey team, Odisha became the first state ever in the country to sponsor a national sports team.
His government has also made sure that past mistakes are not repeated. Hence, apart from the big hockey events, Kalinga Stadium has also hosted the Asian Athletics Championships last year and the Asia Rugby Women’s championship about two months ago, among many other national sporting events.
But Naveen’s absolute commitment to put Odisha on the global sports map was most impressively evident during the build-up to the ongoing 14th edition of the Men’s Hockey World Cup. Ably assisted by a team of few hand-picked officers led by his private secretary V. Karthikeyan Pandian [one of Odisha’s finest IAS officers], the Chief Minister personally ensured that Bhubaneswar put its best foot forward as it laid down the red carpet for players from all over the world. The capital city of the state was all decked up with street art and 3D murals, equipped with world-class facilities for visitors, in the days ahead of the start of the tournament. Hoisting the flags of all participating countries, the Kalinga Stadium was looking more than ready to get the matches started ahead of the opening ceremony on November 27.
And boy, did the opening ceremony make a big impression: Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan making a grand entry on a modern-day chariot, Naveen delivering an inspiring and endearing opening speech, Madhuri Dixit dazzling with a dance performance for the ages, and A.R. Rahman’s rendition of hockey anthem “Jai Hind India”.
The Naveen Patnaik government seems to have ensured that every aspect of the Men’s Hockey World Cup is managed well enough to make it a runaway success. That should be inspiration enough for the Indian team.