After a month-long hibernation, the hockey universe swung into action over the weekend. World champions Belgium received a sobering welcome back on field, with Spain staging a last-minute comeback to beat them on penalties in the first match of the Pro League-the newest tournament in the international hockey federation’s (FIH) bouquet.
Pakistan, in their pursuit of an Olympic berth after missing out in 2016, announced nearly a dozen changes to their World Cup squad, as they prepare for a nomad’s life over the next six months. In the coming weekend, Britain, Argentina, New Zealand and the Netherlands will join the Pro League bandwagon, which moves to the Southern Hemisphere.
Every nation has moved on. Except India. They don’t have a coach. The players don’t have an idea if they are in or out of the team. And there are no matches scheduled, at least till March. The women’s team, too, doesn’t have much lined up. But the stability in the coaching staff has ensured they have a relatively busier schedule.
The lack of competitive games is a self-inflicted problem, given it was Hockey India which voluntarily opted out of the Pro League. However, as the tournament got underway, the magnitude of the federation’s self-goal has dawned upon many. It turns out skipping the Pro League has not just robbed India of weekly matches-home and away-against the world’s best teams, it has also made the Road to Tokyo a tricky one, especially for the women’s team.
Olympic qualification system for hockey
Twelve teams will compete in the hockey events of the Tokyo Olympics. Five continental champions will get direct Olympic berth. For the remaining seven spots, 14 teams will compete in a qualifier, scheduled to be held in October and November. Teams who will play the qualifiers will be: the top 4 sides from the 9-team Pro League, top 2 from the three FIH Series each, along with 4 highest-placed teams in the world rankings after the conclusion of continental championships. In case a continental champion finishes in top-four or top-two of Pro League and Hockey Series respectively, their spot will be awarded to the next highest placed team after the conclusion of continental championships. These 14 teams will feature in seven two-match playoffs. Both matches will be played at the home of the higher-ranked team. The overall winner of the playoff will qualify for the Olympics. The teams will be drawn as follows: the three highest-ranked teams will be drawn randomly to play the sides placed 12, 13 and 14 while the nations ranked from 4 to 7 will be pitted against those placed 8 to 11. So the challenge for India is to stay in the top seven of the world rankings to ensure they play a lower-ranked team at home. While it is a possibility for the men's team, currently ranked 5th, as they can accumulate enough points from the Hockey Series Finals to remain in the top bracket. The task will be tougher for the women, who are ninth in the world at the moment. Even if they win the Hockey Series Finals, they will still play catch-up with Pro League nations to stay in the top seven, when the teams for Olympic qualifiers are drawn.
As per FIH’s Olympic qualification system, five continental champions will get direct berths while the rest will have to go through a two-match playoff, scheduled for October and November. It won’t be a home-and-away affair; instead both matches will be played at the home of the higher-ranked team.
As per the format (see accompanying box), the teams ranked in the top seven after the conclusion of continental championships in August stand to get a favourable draw. Not only do they get the advantage of playing at home, but they are also assured of getting a team ranked below them. While it may not guarantee an Olympic spot, it certainly makes the path a bit smoother.
But here’s the catch, as far as India are concerned: by not playing the Pro League, the men’s and women’s teams are set to drop crucial ranking points, which will eventually have an impact on their positions. Even if both Indian teams win their respective Hockey Series Finals, a tournament for second-rung teams, they can get a maximum of 500 points. That is as many as the side finishing eighth in the 9-team Pro League stands to earn.
It practically means that almost all teams in the Pro League stand to move up in world rankings because of the higher points on offer, thus enhancing their chances of getting a favourable draw for the Olympic qualifiers.
India, meanwhile, will have to ensure they win the Hockey Series Finals and hope other nations do not make a big move on the rankings table. The situation may not be so dire for the men’s team, currently ranked fifth in the world, as they can still sneak into the top-7 for the qualification draw.
However, it puts the ninth-ranked women’s side under pressure after a respectable last year in terms of results. The team made an Olympic appearance at Rio after 36 years but repeating the feat will be a touch-and-go affair as there is a realistic chance that they will have to play a higher-ranked team away from home to secure a place for the 2020 Games. "Skipping the Pro League makes our qualification for the qualifying event easier, but the actual qualifier in itself will be difficult," a Hockey India official said.
Hockey India pulled out of the Pro League in July 2017, days after its former president, and current FIH head, Narinder Batra was reprimanded by the international body for his ‘inappropriate’ comments’ against Pakistan and England hockey officials. Hockey India hasn’t yet given an official reason for withdrawing from the tournament, though a official said ‘unreasonable timelines’ and lack of clarity over the Olympic qualification process were the main reasons.
The official insisted they weren’t aware of the ranking system back then. It is learnt that once it was made clear and Hockey India realised its potential impact, they approached the FIH to be reinstated. However, the world body declined to do so and included them for the 2021 edition instead.