The door is open for India's inclusion into the fold for the Pro League, international hockey's new home-and-away league that will feature nine countries in both men's and women's hockey, according to International Hockey Federation (FIH) CEO Jason McCracken.
India were initially included among the nine nations in both men's and women's hockey for the Pro League, meant to feature nine teams playing games between January and July next year, with the top four teams assured of Olympic qualification for 2020. When Hockey India (HI) announced their withdrawal, FIH had announced Spain and Belgium as replacements in the men's and women's competitions.
"Hockey is stronger when India is there, and we are seeing it here, but when the time is right for Hockey India, we are always talking to them and (the) door is open," McCracken said on the sidelines of the World League Final in Bhubaneswar, a tournament which he explained will also be rebranded as the Hockey Series in 2018, a "transition" year according to him.
"This is the Final of the World League as we know it now -- it's currently four levels -- and that is being replaced by two levels. We start with Hockey Series Open, which is open to all nations of the world," said McCracken. "Then the winners of the Open will go through to three finals, which will be played in 2019, and two teams at each of these series finals will then go to the Olympic qualifiers to qualify for the Olympic games."
McCracken, who also said that hockey has been confirmed in the roster of sports for the 2024 Paris Olympics and that discussions for 2028 Los Angeles Games are on as well, agreed that the Pro League would need India's participation to be a commercial success. "We think it will be a fantastic success because every one of those 144 games will be a home match, and we see good crowds, and when we see India play, we see a packed stadium. That's what we want from every single game," he said, adding that India could be a part of the Pro League as early as 2019. "The door is open now. There are some challenges because we are working on the schedule. You could imagine it -- 144 games all over the world. We have to adjust the schedule, whether that's the next year or the year after or later."
The international community of players and coaches has been unanimous in wishing that India be a part of the Pro League. Germany midfielder Dan Nguyen told ESPN that his team has never played in front of the kind of crowds like in India. "It's a little bit (packed) in Netherlands, but to tell you the truth, it's only here. We really love to play hockey here, because the crowd here are smiling and having fun. For us as hockey players, it is unbelievable. If you see the crowd, if you see how popular the hockey players here are, India have to play the Pro League."
Spain's Enrique Gonzalez, playing in the World League Final a year after representing his country at the junior World Cup in Lucknow, felt that while he looked forward to being a part of the Pro League, it was a gamble for a team like ninth-ranked Spain to take a chance on missing out on Olympic qualification via the Pro League, where only four teams will go through to the Olympics. "It's a very difficult tournament because we have a lot of budget (constraints) and if we know we are in the Pro League, we will concede (a chance) to go to the Olympic Games, but it is more difficult," said Gonzalez.
Belgium coach Shane McLeod felt that sooner or later India would come back to the Pro League fold, despite their initial hesitation. "What we see is a big investment in Indian hockey, and yes there has been some progression and a few steps back, but over the last five or six years, the Indian team has gotten better and it needs to continue to have things like the Pro League to keep getting that exposure and to keep building its fan base. I think it's a bit of a mistake to not be in it, and I think it will be rectified at some stage," said McLeod.
"If you see the crowd, if you see how popular the hockey players here are, India have to play the Pro League" Germany's Dan Nguyen
There have also been concerns from some experts about the ability of a team like Pakistan, whose men's team are slated to host their Pro League 'home' matches in Scotland, to find the budget needed to compete in a six-month-long league around the globe. McLeod hoped that FIH would step in to support such member nations.
"We [Belgium] are doing pretty well (financially), and I hope that FIH assists so that you don't have teams that struggle a little bit with budget, they play fantastic hockey but can't be a part of it because of financial reasons," said McLeod. "That's wrong, but I do have some hopes that FIH do a good job at selling the TV rights and publicising it really well. I think there's a good chance for our sport to move on and become a world sport again."