Bhubaneswar: If there is one thing associated with Odia pride today, it is hockey. Talk to anyone in the state, even those who have never watched a hockey match – either in a stadium or at home – and they will confess to the electric atmosphere created by the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup being held in Odisha for the second time in a row, a record in itself. The excitement is palpable and the pride genuine.
“I am really proud that a world-class sporting event is being organised on this scale in our state. Finally, there is something that our children can boast about,” says Chandra Kanti Mishra, a homemaker from the city of Rourkela, which is one of two cities – along with Bhubaneswar – where matches will be played.
The enthusiasm of young sports lovers like Aniket Mohanty of Bhubaneswar knows no bounds. “Ours is the only state in the world which has the honour of organising two consecutive hockey world cups. Bhubaneswar is the new sports capital of India,” gushes Aniket.
With hockey fever gripping the state and India launching its World Cup campaign with an emphatic victory over Spain at Rourkela’s newly constructed Birsa Munda Stadium on Friday, every Odia’s heart now beats for the game.
Half-Time: India 2-0 Spain
Amit Rohidas and Hardik score for India to give them a crucial half time lead in the crucial Pool D encounter. Amit Rohidas’ goal was India’s 200th goal in the men’s World Cups.
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— International Hockey Federation (@FIH_Hockey) January 13, 2023
But even as chief minister Naveen Patnaik, a great fan of the game who was the goalie of his school hockey team, collects accolades for hosting the world cup for the second time on the trot, experts also acknowledge the contribution of past governments to the development of the game in the state.
“Odisha, especially the tribal-dominated Sundergarh district, is a storehouse of hockey talent. It all began long back when Christian missionaries came to the district. They found the game as an easy way to unite the local tribes, which had a flair for hockey. It was the cheapest and best way of bringing them together,” says Olympian Lazarus Barla, who honed his hockey skills at the Panposh sports hostel in Sundergarh.
Subsequently, the craze for the game drew more and more people to it and governments began seriously thinking about its promotion.
Veteran sports journalist Sambit Mohapatra said the “real credit” for laying the foundation for the promotion of hockey in the state should go to former chief minister J.B. Patnaik. “It was during his tenure as the chief minister in 1985 that the Panposh sports hostel for hockey was set up in Sundergarh district. It has produced a number of world-class players including former India captain and incumbent Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Ignace Tirkey and Prabodh Tirkey,” he says.
The sport also grew in Odisha because of the Government of India’s initiatives like “Catch Them Young” in the early 80s, when residential sports hostel complexes were built in areas where local talents could be spotted. They were trained by coaches from the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Some important sports complexes came up in the state during this period.
“If the focus in Sundergarh was on hockey, it was football in Cuttack and athletics in Bhubaneswar. These sports hostels played a big role in promoting sports and games,” said Mohapatra, adding that things began really looking up for hockey in Sundergarh after an astroturf was laid at the Panposh sports hostel in the early 90s. “It was one of the first hostels of its kind in the country to have an astroturf,” recalled Mohapatra.
Sundergarh has since come to be known as the nursery of Indian hockey. The area has produced a slew of international hockey players including Dilip Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Ignace Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey, Peter Tirkey, Roshan Minz, Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra. Even veteran Olympian, Michael Kindo, who is among the best defenders the game has seen, contributed to the development of the game in Sundergarh in a big way. He honed the skills of young hockey players in Rourkela till his death in 2020. He was also the coach of the SAIL Hockey Academy in the steel city.
Enjoyed #TeamIndia‘s incredible #HWC2023 opener at Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium with my coach AK Bansal Sir & @FIH_Hockey President Tayyab Ikram.
#IndiaKaGame #HockeyWorldCup2023 #HockeyComesHome pic.twitter.com/4neRPP2xwf
— Dilip Kumar Tirkey (@DilipTirkey) January 13, 2023
Peter Tirkey, another hockey international who is now a coach with the SAIL Hockey Academy at Rourkela, says, “The game has progressed by leaps and bounds in the entire state but Sundergarh is the hub of hockey. Thanks to the state government, we now have astroturfs in 17 blocks of the district. This has added to the enthusiasm of the boys and helped them improve their game. Wait for a few more years and our boys will make half of the Indian hockey team.”
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik, however, must be credited for turning Odisha into the new home of Indian hockey by adding to the facilities and creating world-class infrastructure. While the new-look Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar boasts of the best facilities for hockey, the Birsa Munda stadium at Rourkela is the biggest single-purpose hockey stadium in the country. When the 2018 Men’s World Cup hockey was organised at the Kalinga stadium, the state gained international recognition for its world-class hockey infrastructure.
“There was a time when Odisha made the news only for natural calamities and starvation. But now it is known for its world-class sports infrastructure, especially hockey stadiums. International tournaments like the hockey world cup also help attract international tourists. Such events have brought the state into international focus and it is also being seen as a great investment destination by top-notch industrialists. So hockey has gained as much from Odisha as the state has gained from it. It has been a mutually beneficial association,” said political observer Shashi Kant Mishra.
Patnaik has been promoting hockey assiduously because he has realised that this is the best way of bringing the state into international focus. In 2018, the chief minister also decided that his government will become the official sponsor of both men’s and women’s national hockey teams. The contract that was to end in 2023 but it was extended until 2033 in the wake of excellent performance by the teams at the Tokyo Olympics. That year, the men’s team won a bronze medal – the first medal after a gap of more than 40 years – and the women’s team made the semi-finals of the Olympics for the first time. Patnaik drew praise for the teams’ achievements. Now, with Odisha hosting the men’s world cup hockey for the second time now, every Odia is proud of his state as well as the game.