Bhubaneswar, 27 Nov 2018: Finally, with the World Cup arriving in Bhubaneshwar, it is a true homecoming for Hockey itself. Thanks to Hockey India and International Hockey Federation, the big event begins tomorrow. More than Odisha wanting to host the World Cup, it is the FIH and HI, who wanted to host it in Odisha. And now it is on… The stunning rebuild of the now 15,000-capacity Kalinga Hockey Stadium, the Indian city of Bhubaneswar and the State of Odisha, are all set and the mesmerising Opening Ceremony, made one wonder if it was an Olympic event. Odisha has done it once again. And now over to action, from Wednesday. India takes on South Africa in their opening match.
With the games beginning tomorrow (Wednesday), the level of excitement is palpable as the global sporting showpiece is expected to draw thousands of fans despite the entry ticket. Images of hockey’s superstars have adorned the billboards and buildings across the city that wholeheartedly embraced the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host a sporting spectacle with a glorious heritage. Perhaps for hockey too, it is the best chance to land its foot in the tribal hockey heartland, which gave world-class players to the sport by a dozen.
On Monday 26 November, the captains of all 16 competing teams joined Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik at Bhubaneswar’s impressive Mukteshwar Temple for a special commemorative photo alongside the prize that they are all here to fight for: the World Cup trophy itself. Whilst it remains to be seen which of these men will lift this iconic trophy on Sunday 16 December, it promises to be a fascinating 19-day journey of discovery.
The extravagant opening ceremony not only celebrated hockey but also the city, the region and the country. The Kalinga Athletics Stadium, witnessed a sell-out crowd and the stunning show featured a performance from Oscar-winning music maestro AR Rahman and present was Bollyhood here Sharuk Khan.
As if that was not enough, a second celebration is all set for Wednesday, the 28th of November in the nearby city of Cuttack, where the 40,000 capacity Barabati Stadium will see Rahman and numerous other stars thrill the crowd once again.
Following the show, India’s first match, against South Africa, will be broadcast live to an excited crowd via giant screen in the stadium.
The competition format in Bhubaneswar is the same as that which was employed at the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup earlier this year, with the 16 competing nations split into four pools of four each. A guaranteed berth in the competition quarterfinals is on offer to the team that tops the group, with the second and third placed finishers getting an additional chance to qualify for the quarterfinals. The teams who finish at the bottom of pool are eliminated. It is a format that certainly keeps things interesting and has the ability to throw up a few surprises providing life to the dark horses.
The pool phase of the event in Bhubaneswar sees each day of competition ‘group focused’ throughout, with two Pool C matches getting the tournament off to a flying start on Wednesday evening. Olympic silver medallists Belgium (FIH Hero World Ranking: 3) begin their quest for a first ever World Cup title when they face Canada (WR:11) at 5pm India time. Belgium, one of the minnows in world hockey not so long ago, have been one of the fastest growing teams, and now withe the medal-winning performance in Olympics, they achieved their ranking and are no more underdogs. They have players who developed now into world class seasoned tacticians and to name a couple in Arthur van Doren and Vincent Vanasch, the respective FIH Player and FIH Goalkeeper of the Year for 2017 respectively. Canada have plenty of quality of their own, especially in the shape of inspirational defender and penalty corner expert Scott Tupper, who will be looking to guide his team to what would be a famous victory.
While there is plenty of intrigue surrounding the opening fixture, for the vast majority of the sell-out 15,000 crowd it is merely a warm-up for the main event as host nation India (WR:5) go head-to-head with African champions South Africa (WR:15) at 7pm India time. Indian coach Harendra Singh and a significant portion of his squad were part of the glorious Junior World Cup success on home soil in Lucknow two years ago, and a strong start here in Bhubaneswar could be the catalyst for something very special on an even bigger stage. However, Harendra will not allow his team to get carried away with the occasion – with the experience of Austin Smith, Rhett Halkett and team captain Tim Drummond, South Africa are a side capable of punishing any level of complacency from the home favourites.
On competition days two, three and four, the focus will switch from Pools A to B to C, with matches taking place at 1700 and 1900 each day. The Pool A fixtures on Thursday 29 November will see Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallists Argentina (WR:2) face a Spain team packed with flair in what promised to be a thrilling encounter before the Black Sticks of New Zealand (WR:9) go head-to-head with France (WR:20), a team returning to World Cup action for the first time in 28 years.
Friday 30 November is all about Pool B, with reigning world champions Australia (WR:1) beginning their title defence against an Ireland (WR:10) team keen to show just how much progress they have made in recent years at what is their first FIH Men’s World Cup since 1990. England (WR:7) take on China (WR:17) in the evening match, with Danny Kerry’s team looking to get their competition off to a winning start.
The first round of pool matches will be completed on competition day four as the Pool D teams take to the stage. The Netherlands (WR:4) take on Malaysia (WR:12) in a fascinating encounter that will see legendary Dutchman and current Malaysia Head Coach Roelant Oltmans aiming to defeat a team that he guided to World Cup glory at the 1998 event in Utrecht. That match is followed by a meeting between two nations that have claimed between two nations that have won six world titles between them, as two-time champions Germany (WR:6) take on four-time winners Pakistan (WR:13).