The World League Final in Bhubaneswar came to an end on Sunday evening with a final worthy of the occasion: Olympic champions Argentina facing off against World champions Australia.
In the end, Australia pulled through 2-1 -- Jeremy Hayward and Blake Govers, with one goal each, winning the battle of the penalty-corner specialists against Argentina's Gonzalo Peillat.
It was a fitting end to an exciting 10 days of hockey, and will also in all likelihood be the last that we see of the World League. With an action-packed 2018 in store, there will be lots for hockey fans to look forward to, but the sceptre of the Pro League in 2019 and the format of the World League dominated discussion among the players and coaches.
Since the advent of the World League in 2013, the quarterfinal format has entered some of the top competitions of hockey, and that has left a lot of teams confused about how to approach the pool stages, effectively rendered meaningless.
For instance, Germany were the only team that finished in the top two in either of the pools that made the last four in Bhubaneswar. It was good that Australia won the event, as they were one of only two teams that technically did not lose a single game -- Belgium, knocked out in a shootout in the quarterfinals by India, took fifth place despite being the other team to go home without being beaten.
"We finished fifth, and that's not what we expected," said Belgian midfielder Cedric Chariler. "But if we look at the bigger picture, we played five games and we won four and drew one. We fought really hard and played at a good level at some points, but we are still trying to improve every time we play. In the end, it's a good preparation for next year."
The scheduling also left a few of the teams miffed -- Spain coach Frederic Soyez and Carlos Retegui of Argentina both pointed at the unequal amount of rest given to some teams. Argentina wound up playing their first five games inside seven days, while Australia started with successive games but then played their next two over five days, with a number of gaps in between. The dates and matchups for the quarterfinals were also announced quite late to the teams. Germany, for instance, weren't aware of whom they were likely to face and, more importantly, when, after winning their quarterfinal against the Netherlands.
The top three positions reflected what a number of coaches had to say about world hockey at the moment, that the gap between the top eight or 10 teams is quite small and margins are tight at this level.
India benefited from the lottery of facing an injury-hit German team to clinch bronze, but it might have been compensation for the misfortune of a lottery of a semi-final against Argentina in less-than-perfect weather conditions. Argentina, in turn, showed their Olympic gold and No. 1 ranking aren't to be taken lightly, showing their ability to peak in the knockout stages. World No. 2 Australia maintained the old world order, their victory a throwback to when you could pick their name alongside Germany and Netherlands, and place them randomly in the podium places at any global tournament in men's hockey.
Spain were a breath of fresh air -- pulling off wins over Netherlands and Argentina -- and their opponents praised them for their defensive organisation. With the caveat that a format like the one used at the World League Final can sometimes be deceptive for pool games, it bodes well for the World Cup next year, which will have twice the field of 2017. In fact, South Korea sent a team to get a feel of the conditions, and Malaysian coach Stephen van Huizen spent most of the time during the tournament in Bhubaneswar keeping an eye on next year's opposition.
Pro League conundrum
The International Hockey Federation (FIH) plans to introduce a nine-team home-and-away league called the Pro League in 2019, due to run from January to June, and most teams seemed unconvinced about its viability.
The first point of contention will be the scheduling -- in its current form, it might clash with the entirety of the lucrative European leagues. For instance, the German league for 2017-18 began in September, took a break in November and is scheduled to run from March through till June next year. Peillat, who plays in Germany, seems sure a number of his Argentine teammates will choose club over country.
"I think it's a huge amount of money that all the national teams need to do the Pro League," he said. "But also the Pro League doesn't give anything for the players. So I don't think all the players from our national team are going to play, at the moment, [since] we have 15-16 players playing professionally in Europe. If we have to choose between playing for our club, and the Pro League, I don't think this makes sense, because the Pro League is going to be for free."
German striker Florian Fuchs simply laughed when asked what choice would he make -- club or country. "We have the German, Belgium and Dutch leagues so FIH has to consider that we're playing club hockey on the top level and I think there will be a solution," he said.
The only country somewhat supportive of the Pro League appeared to be Spain, beneficiaries of India's pullout from the competition after having been named as one of nine nations. "I believe that for Spanish players playing in the Spanish competition, it is a reward to be playing in that kind of league, because we play for fun and it is so much more than a sport for us. We would be glad to be participating and travelling around the globe," said captain and striker Pau Quemada.
Netherlands coach Max Caldas, though, was critical of the governing body for the lack of clarity over the exact format and schedule, as also FIH CEO Jason McCracken's statement recently suggesting the "door was open" for India. "You don't know what the rules are, and you are guessing things and it is never good to guess. At this point of time, it's a bit of a concern for us also -- who does what and what do we do?" said Caldas. "It's not about the teams -- I would love for India to be a part of it. But [there are factors like] budgets and money, costs of travel, for us, Germany and Belgium, club hockey; so you cannot just join in and say, 'Yoo-hoo'. It's not a party."