Is the hockey World Cup making an impact globally? Sitting in Bhubaneswar, we can't be sure. Sundeep Misra, the Odisha government's media advisor for the World Cup, says over 200 journalists have been accredited, of whom more than 40 are foreigners, and more are due to attend the knockout games. It is difficult to estimate how wide the foreign journalists' reach is. The FIH has secured television coverage in 194 countries, a 150 per cent increase over 2014. Such statistics do impact a second- tier rising city, because this is the World Cup. Bhubaneswar may not be London, but it's all about the branding.
Certainly, the intent to make this a global World Cup is there. The government of Odisha thoughtfully invited Ministry of External Affairs officials, ambassadors of the 16 participating countries, and India's ambassadors in the participating countries. In attendance over the opening five days were the ambassadors of Argentina and Belgium, the French consul general in Kolkata, and diplomats from China, Great Britain, Ireland and Argentina, many of them with their spouses. Hockey helps Indian diplomacy in the way all sport helps governments, by giving life a veneer of fun, free of the trials that xenophobic nationalism imposes on our minds.
Regardless of the extent of media impact, it is clear that the world has arrived in Bhubaneswar. Without special effort, I have randomly met fans from Australia, Kenya, Argentina, Britain and Ireland. The president of Deutscher Hockey-Bund, Wolfgang Hillmann, is in Bhubaneswar for the entire tournament. The hockey guru, Ric Charlesworth, is delivering his scholarly sermons from a third-floor pulpit. At a lunch for the Argentinian ambassador and their national team at the Crown Hotel, I met Fernando Bugallo and Miguel Casella " here to support their sons and Argentine team players Agustin and Maico. Kevin and Nadine Hughes from Brisbane, Australia, and Harjinder Singh Dhupar and Gurdev Singh Jandu from Kenya, are happy, chatty sports tourists. The US level 1 coach, Katharine P. DeLorenzo, has brought her American support team from coaching duties in Jharkhand. Look around the stadium; there are Chinese, Irish and Malaysian fans, with an armoury of flags and clothing in national colours.
Conversations provide convincing evidence that this World Cup is exceptional. Although it is not even halfway, there are pointers that it could possibly become the best ever World Cup. The FIH Master Coach, Dutchman Siegfried Aikman, who can count major international hockey tournaments at his fingertips, says: "It's the best ever World Cup. Even when India is not playing, there are so many people. This doesn't happen in any other stadium. They cheer for everyone. The stadium facilities are awesome. The people here are very helpful. They even beat nature (insects, by spraying insecticides around the stadium). The dressing room and facilities (are superb) " there is no such thing in any other hockey stadium. I quote also the Dutch national team players." The tactician Aikman, who plotted Japan's gold medal victory in the 2018 Asian Games, is quietly scouting the fault lines of the other teams in Bhubaneswar ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A similar endorsement comes from South African player Jethro Ray Eustice, who earned his 100th cap in the game against India: "The people, the passion for hockey is unbelievable. India gave us a lot of passion and confidence to do well. It keeps us in high spirits. With 15,000 (people), the atmosphere is astonishing, perfect for a hockey match. The best moment of my career was playing in front of 15,000 Indian supporters."
Argentinian team manager Juan Pablo says: "It's a great World Cup, a great place to play hockey. The stadium is 10 points, it's excellent. The crowd is fantastic. To play hockey, this and Amstelveen are the best venues (in the world)." One might go on.
How has this happened? The Odisha government has built the infrastructure and created a supportive environment, and Hockey India has ticked the technical boxes. But ultimately, it is the fans that drive sport. Hockey's fandom is various, with intricate global ties. It is an extended family, and, across continents, many international players have a family member who played the sport. Pablo says: "In Argentina, it's (hockey is) a family game. My father played hockey, I play hockey, and my wife, son, brother and uncle play hockey." Perhaps this under-appreciated social aspect is what lifts hockey in the sporting pantheon. This is what Marijke Fleuren, president of the European Hockey Federation, meant when she once told me that hockey in Europe is meant to affirm the importance of the family, and ethical behavior.
It is not surprising, therefore, that this World Cup has not had a single ugly situation. Games have been fiercely competitive, but within the bounds of good behaviour. There have been no incidents on the field, or fan problems. Putting the controversy of the 2014 Champions Trophy behind, Bhubaneswar has warmly welcomed the Pakistani team. The stadium at the Germany-Pakistan game was full, as if it were an India game. Each team has its own structures and tactics, employing them with guile and grace. China has won hearts with brave draws against more fancied England and Ireland. The Argentina- Spain and Belgium- India games have been exceptional, but every team has the capacity to surprise. Australia and the Netherlands are in ominous form, but the rest are close.
So, Bhubaneswar can hope to benefit from the quality and conviviality. The campaign "Odisha By Day, Hockey By Night" will be assessed when tourist arrivals are compared with the past, but impressions of casual visitors do create a legacy, which means the statistics may show up in the future. The World Cup could become the trial ground for a sports tourism policy. The citizens of Bhubaneswar are in a zone of uncommon, abundant choices. There is the Bhubaneswar Fest at the exhibition ground, with storytelling, food and entertainment, and the Fan Village at the stadium, with large viewing screens, activity for children, World Cup merchandise on sale, and eateries. By promoting fringe activities around the World Cup during the busy season, Odisha hopes to increase tourist arrivals. Bhubaneswar is branding itself as the spiritual home of Indian hockey, so it should be able to ride out the small quibbles of everyday life, for a larger collective purpose.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He advises the Department of Sports and Youth Services, Government of Odisha, on sports, and teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia.