It’s been about a week since the Grande Finale of the Women’s Hockey World Cup 2022. It was the first time that such an event was hosted in two different countries, the Netherlands and Spain. It is an interesting concept, but one that might need a bit more thought on it. Some of the teams were having to travel in a short space of time and with the current climate crisis, I’m not sure if the balance was quite right. There were also issues with attendances, which we’ll come back to later on. It was also the first Hockey World Cup that I was able to watch fully on the television, which seems like a bit of progress, although it would have been interesting to have it on state television in order to help gain a wider audience.
The main things that struck me in this tournament was how similarly the varying national teams played to each other. There are some cultural differences, of course; the Argentines are keen to run with the ball, using individual skills, as do the Indians. The Dutch use their midfield to move the ball and create angles, for example, others like to attack more than defend or the other way around. However, most teams play a variation of 4-3-3/3-4-3. The main differences between the teams are to do with the levels of funding for the respective programmes. The professional teams are a step above in terms of players, depth of talent, skill execution and consistency compared to those who are broadly semi-professional, or amateur.
The two teams who made it to the final match, the Netherlands and Argentina, were the top two ranked sides in the world. They were placed on opposite sides of the draw, due to the competition’s seeding process, in order to keep them away from each other in the early rounds. A similar intention was shown in the Tokyo Olympics; the men’s Gold Medal Match also had the two top teams in the world face off against each other. They do the same thing in football, presumably to sell more hamburgers and fizzy pop drinks at their World Cup through advertising, but it rarely ever happens in the same way. It’s almost a cliche at this point to talk about the two best tams meeting in the semi final of football tournaments. This is because the professionalism of the men’s game has brought the competing nation’s much closer together in recent years. There are more shocks, due to the tactical nuances that decades of fully funded league structures can bring. This isn’t the case in hockey. The team’s who are ranked lowest in the tournament tend to finish towards the bottom, rarely have we ever seen an Irish success in 2018 and we probably won’t see such a repeat again until there’s more consistency across the various domestic set ups throughout the different domestic competitions.
In the latter half of the World Cup tournament, we saw several classification matches take place, in order to rank the various teams from 16th to 10th. I like the idea of this, it provides a clearer idea of where each team sits in the story of the competition, it also gives the lower grade teams more chances to get international experience and FIH world ranking points. In the context of the invitational tournaments such as the FIH Pro League and the such, many teams like Ireland, South Africa, Japan and so forth don’t get the same opportunities to develop and progress themselves. The only issue was the classification matches didn’t provide enough of an incentive to strive for, sometimes creating stale and stagnant matches. I would propose a secondary championship for those who go out before the quarter finals. A World Plate, or Trophy would give players, coaches and teams an incentive to strive towards those higher positions and provide more entertaining matches. This might also attract more spectators to games and perhaps even more sponsorship and endorsements for the athletes.
This also ties into my final point about the World Cup this year. Outside of the matches that involved the two hosts, Spain and the Netherlands, the games were poorly attended, particularly in the Catalonian venue of Terrassa. During the bidding process for the hosting of competitions like this, world and continental championships, qualifying events and so forth, the FIH should be encouraging, if not mandating, National Governing Bodies (NGBs) to create better fan cultures within their domestic leagues. If England Hockey, for example, wanted to host a World Cup again, they should be told to entice more spectators down to their league games and help in the general and specific areas of developing a culture of watching hockey in the build up to the larger international events. This would then provide greater footfall through the ticketed gates and, in theory, create a better atmosphere within the stadia. School kids and youth team players should be allowed in for free, or heavily discounted prices. When I was coaching girls football in Edinburgh, the Scottish Football Association would send wads of free tickets to all of the local clubs with women and girls teams, whenever the Scotland Women were playing a match. This got more people down, including families and groups of friends of all ages. Another method would be for the national federation to hold competitions and giveaways for people to win tickets to matches and thus fill out the empty seats that we see at various elite level competitions.
Aside from these points, I thoroughly enjoyed the recent World Cup. It was great to see several world class players competing against each other; Gigi Oliva of Spain, the Granatto’s of Argentina were delightful, the entire Dutch side was brilliant in the Final, culminating in a truly spectacular goal in finish the game. There were some lovely stories and personalities on show as well. The Chilean coach Sergio Vigil comes across as a lovely man and one of his players, Francisca Tala, proposed to her travelling boyfriend after scoring against the Dutch. Moments like these are what make up the stories that come with tournaments and sport. I can’t wait for the next competition to enjoy.
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