India won a hockey gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. That was our eighth top spot at the Games and we haven't won a medal at any major world tournament since. But even as India slip sliding away, our players continue to be admired for their skills, manage to draw crowds everywhere they play — even if the results remain largely negative — and are sought-after in most competitive European leagues.
The domestic scene too is not as bad as it is made out to be, going strictly by the number of tournaments still held in the country.
Which brings up the question: Why do players make a beeline for foreign leagues, and what sets the best European leagues — and the Australian Hockey League — apart from the Indian structure? What helps them produce a consistently winning performance at major tournaments, with or without their star players?
Perhaps the answer isn't that difficult to find. The most competitive leagues across the world are also the best organised. Their schedules are well planned, they ensure all their top players participate in the domestic leagues and their national camps and campaigns never clash with the domestic season.
During the 2007 Premier Hockey League in Chandigarh, Dutch player Balder Bomans said that all national team players have to go back to their clubs and play at least a couple of matches in a season. That also helps spread the game among youngsters as they are inspired by seeing their heroes in person.
In contrast, the Indian hockey Federation (IHF) seems to abhor the very idea of creating stars. Having players reach out to the public and spreading the game is a strict no-no — that remains the prerogative of the federation. And any player who appears to become even marginally popular is cut to size, with immediate effect.
On the other hand, even Pakistan welcomes the idea of creating stars. The national Stadium in Lahore has huge photographs of the entire team adorning it. Spain, which has more synthetic surfaces per district than India perhaps has all over the country, has a strong club culture that helps players adjust right from the beginning.
Talented Spanish striker Santiago Freixa says, "every city (in Spain) has two-three sports clubs, and you choose your sport and then work on it. If you are good, you start playing seriously."
When was the last time the IHF came out with their list of selected players for any tournament by itself, without the media having to try every channel possible to get the same? When did one get to know about any new appointment in the IHF without using their "sources"? When was the IHF website last updated?
There is, sadly no answer to all the above questions. And that perhaps explains the chasm between Indian hockey and the rest of the world. Log on to Hockey Australia's website, and one is swamped with information. From their annual report over the past two years, to the latest Australian appointments across the world of hockey, to the national teams (the Aussies announce a pool of 24-odd players at the beginning of the year itself) — one need not look anywhere else for information.
In fact, across the spectrum, the internet has been used by every major national federation to stay updated and accessible. Not just Australia, federations in Spain, Germany and Holland (though not in English) have well-maintained websites that also include postings on any vacancies with all requirements.
In India, coaches continue to be appointed and removed on a whim.
Perhaps it all boils down to one word: professionalism. In a world increasingly becoming professional, where results matter more than anything else and performance the only benchmark, the IHF seems to be living in a time warp. The federation continues to function without any accountability, a "mad house", as German Gerhard Rach said before he left as chief coach. With the FIH getting desperate in its attempt to bring Indian hockey back on feet — the market's too big to ignore — it's about time the mad house is put in order. For hockey's sake.