Twenty years of fieldhockey.com
Hockey Writers' Club member George Brink has just celebrated 20 years of running the fieldhockey.com website. Here's the piece from his site reflecting on that period:
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the start of Fieldhockey.com on 3 June 1996!
Started after a discussion in the pub after a game lamenting about how very little news there was on Hockey in traditional media and Teletext (a text news service on TV). At the time I was starting out as a website designer and thought a neutral subject like Hockey would be an ideal showcase for my skills. The content very quickly overtook the showcase aspect. Knowing a site had to change frequently to attract visitors, I decided to attempt to put at least one story about Hockey from anywhere in the world on the site to prove that Hockey was a vibrant sport. Initially this was a difficult task, but I remember one person commiserating with me in a Hockey news chat room assuring me that it would get better in time. Thank you to that kind person for your encouragement, it kept be going until the Atlanta Olympics where there was a plethora of news to sustain me.
Immediately after the Games when all the hockey journalists were on a plane back to their home countries Fieldhockey.com was unable to carry a single news story on 13 August 1996. This was the last day I was unable to find a single story about hockey on the Internet! Since then I have been able to find at least one story every single day (I remember only finding one story on an early Christmas Day about a town in India laying an artificial surface and remarking although it was only one story, it was at least a story. I got a reply from a fan in Canada about the town being his home town and thanking me for putting it on the site).
Trying to live a normal life and update the site has not always been easy as International travel and family holidays have had to come into the equation. Finding Internet cafes and surfing up at Dubai International airport has not always been easy. Even once cellular WiFi started to make life easier there have been times where even this let me down on a trip to a remote part of South Africa where I was not able to connect to the Internet for 3 days. Fortunately I was able to recover those 3 lost days from the archives of the sites I regularly look at for stories to maintain the record of been able to find one story per day.
Running the site has allowed me to watch an enormous amount of live International Hockey at tournaments from Junior and Senior World Cups and their associated qualifier tournaments, Champions Trophy, Champions Challenge, Olympic qualifiers, Continental Championships, multi-nation events and test series between two nations. In 2000 I tried to tally the number I had watched and gave up when I reached 1000 Internationals. I haven't slowed down on watching International Hockey, so I guess I must be approaching 3 - 400 Internationals by now (including all those games watched on TV and via live streaming).
In watching these Internationals I have met and chatted to many of the World's top players, coaches, umpires and officials and have met many Olympic Gold medallists and actually held some of those Gold Medals. What an honour that has been. I watched one of Australian Brent Livermore's first senior Internationals and his 300th. I have watched Dhanraj Pillay and Mukesh Kumar destroy the opposition with their speed and skill and witnessed the amazing skill of the PHF's Secretary General, Shahbaz Ahmed on the field. I have seen incredible umpires like John and Peter Wright, Murray Grime, Santi Deo (the only umpire I have seen show a second green card, hold up two fingers and change it to yellow - no question as to why the player was getting a yellow for a minor infringement). I have met coaches like Ric Charlesworth, Barry Dancer who coached Australia's men to their only Olympic Gold medal despite the team having been in almost all Olympic semi-finals since their entry to the Olympics in 1956, Mauritz Hendricks who is the only coach to have coached a team to Champions Challenge, Champions trophy, Olympic and World Cup Golds (the others don't have that Champions Challenge Gold), Cedric D'Souza who quit in the middle of a World Cup campaign due to administrative interference, all the top Malaysian coaches who with a combination of Head Coach, Assistant coach, and Team Manager get all their top coaches in to an International event and the late Horst Wein who stayed over at my house and taught my young son the Indian dribble on our back lawn.
So what has changed over 20 years?
The Rules for one. The year before the site started the off-side rule was abolished which gives you an idea of just how much the game has changed. No two consecutive Olympics followed by World Cup followed again by Olympics have been played under same set of Rules since the site started.
There has been a steady decline in the number of spectators at International events to the point where the last Junior World Cup was played in an almost empty Dhyan Chand stadium and even at the last World Cup in games where the Netherlands was not involved, the stadia were depressingly empty. Could this be because of the constant changing of the Rules so spectators don't really understand the game anymore? The players I umpire certainly are confused at the beginning of each season as well as some of my colleagues. I remember at the 2001 World Cup Qualifier in Edinburgh the FIH changed the Rules on taking a Penalty Stroke so a player was not allowed to drag the shot and only announced it in the Team briefing and not to the spectators. This led a what looked like a perfectly good Penalty Stroke goal being disallowed which confused the teams, spectators and coaches until a coach had a look his video replay to show a "rooster tail" of water behind the striker's stick proving the shot had been dragged. Only those around that coach and the umpire had any idea why it had been disallowed and there were plenty of disgruntled spectators. Do that often enough and people will stop going to matches. I enjoy watching sport and can follow a game of Cricket, Rugby or Football quite easily because the Rules haven't changed that much, not to the extent Hockey has changed. I wonder if ever we will get to the point where two consecutive Olympics are played under the same Rules.
Perhaps the decline in spectators is due the absurd system of quarter-finals that has been introduced making the pool games almost irrelevant and meaning a team that wins just 3 games in a tournament will win the Gold and a team that wins 5 games may only come 5th because the lost that quarter-final. This system is the sole reason why Pakistan was out of the last World Cup. Having finished at the top of their Pool in the Pool Games of WHL R3 they lost their quarter-final to Korea who had finished bottom of the other pool only drawing one game against Japan, and that QF being their only win of the tournament and then Pakistan lost the next play off meaning a distant 7th was the best they could do and were out of the World Cup for the first time in their history. They had a better record (Won 2 Draw 2 Lost 2) at that tournament than Korea (Won 1 Draw 1 Lost 4) who got through their quarter-final and finished 4th. Another inconsistency was The 2011 Women's Champions Challenge in Ireland where South Africa needing to come first or second in order to qualify automatically for the Olympics won every match except the quarter-final ending in 5th with a record of Won 5 Draw 0 Lost 1 and seemingly out of the Olympics (they later qualified through the last Olympic Qualifiers ever held by winning that tournament). The eventual winners, Japan's record was Won 4 Draw 1 Lost 1 (to South Africa) while Silver medallists USA Won 2 Draw 1 and Lost 3. Where is the sense in this kind of system? Governments and Sponsors don't pay for 5th place no matter how many games you actually won. We have seen how devastating this system has been to Pakistan Hockey and their rapid decline since that failure to make the World Cup. How many other nations are going to go to the wall before it is scrapped?
Recent announcements about the future of Hockey leave me dumbfounded. I agree whole heartedly with the scrapping of the WHL finals as this was a tournament that even the teams going to it didn't take seriously sending many new players and weakened teams on the excuse of "blooding" new players or resting stars to the tournaments. Even at the beginning of the whole WHL you could predict most of the participants in the tournament, but for those teams that upset the form books the cost was horrendous as they had had to attend 3 rounds of the tournament at a huge cost to the nation involved. I think here of Ireland Men who had to do Round 2, 3 and 4 of the last WHL and now have been struggling to make ends meet to attend their reward of the Olympic Games.
Scrapping the Champions Trophy in favour of a Global Hockey League played on a home and away basis to me is a recipe for disaster. The idea is fine when you see full stadia for home tests, but in financial terms how are any nation going to afford to send their teams on 5-6 away tours For just 1 team. Most of the top nations will have both their Men's and Women's teams involved in in the League and will be looking at funding 10 to 12 away tours. Where is the money going to come from? Even the most affluent of hockey nations are going to struggle to find the money. Ireland are struggling to find enough money to go to the Olympic Games which is one of the cheapest tournaments around as accommodation is taken care of on site. And then you have to move to the question of players. Most International players also have a day job to attend to which becomes difficult to do in key years like Olympic years. Anita Punt of New Zealand had to pull out of a tour to Argentina earlier this year due to work pressures. Would you pay to watch weakened international teams because not all their players can get 3 months off work to take part for the entire tournament? It would work if Hockey players were like footballers getting tens of thousands per week to play the game, but even a player like Moritz Fuerste of Germany told reporters in India during the HIL that he struggled to make Hockey ends meet. The Champions Trophy on the other hand achieves nearly the same result but is over in a week. It's almost affordable to both athletes and National Associations, though I suspect Pakistan's withdrawal from this month's Champions Trophy has more to do with finances than their current form. I just feel that the GHL will be a recipe for financial disaster before the monetary rewards build enough to make it viable.
The World Ranking system has come into being in the past 20 years and while it is an improvement on the nothingness that prevailed before, it is badly flawed. For instance at Continental Championships, Europe, Asia and Oceania are granted full value of any points acquired while Africa and Pan America's points are weighted ostensibly because their are fewer hockey playing nations in those Continental Federations. That argument falls flat when you look at the number of nations taking part in the Oceania Cup as opposed to the African and Pan American championships. The Champions from those two Continental Federations are constantly being held back in the rankings making it more difficult to progress because of this weighting. And now we have the Asian Champions Trophy being granted ranking points as well. How on earth are nations outside Asia going to be able to compete on a fair footing? Whilst there are few better spectacles of an India v Pakistan International this promotion of Asia over the rest of the World lacks the fairness an impartial World Federation should have.
There have been a number of fabulous things that have happened in the past 20 years though. We have seen the start of EHL and HIL which is fantastic for Hockey (but where are the equivalent competitions for Women?). The growth of the Azlan Shah Cup to being an annual feature on the calendar and the recent introduction of the Women's equivalent tournament, the Hawkes Bay Cup is long overdue.
Growth of Hockey at grass roots level has been incredible, but almost wherever I go, this growth has been stimulated by a passion for the game by former players and not so much by the National Associations. I think particularly here of the One Thousand Hockey Legs project in India begun by one passionate individual, Mr. K Arumugam, whose enthusiasm has not only sparked the "Hockey Legs", but has caught like wild fire with people willing to give back to Hockey. I personally think that all Nations should look to this model to grow hockey within their countries, because if one man can do what Arumugam has done, what could whole nations achieve?
The biggest problem generally within these grass roots players is they are concerned about their club performance more than their regional team or National Team. They are hardly aware of Hockey outside of their own country which is a pity because this is a wonderful global sport. How do you bring up the level of interest in Global Hockey to the point of Football, Rugby or Cricket where even the players in the lowliest of club teams can discourse about the merits of the players of other Nations or the merits of their National teams? HIL is certainly helping, and once we crack that nut, perhaps Hockey will take it's rightful place in the sports world and most top players will be able to have financially sound careers in Hockey.
Thank you to all the journalists who write about this sport and make this site possible. I have met some wonderful characters and have warm memories of time spent freezing together in the stands covering Hockey. Bruce Hamilton belting out Advance Australia Fair; Pat Rowley's pipe and phenomenal memory of records; Mr T quietly telling his editor a 500 word limit to his article was not acceptable or sending me copy saying his editor had cut his story and please would I publish the full version (I occasionally missed a Mr. T story and have duly been told off for doing so); Bill and Jean Colwill quietly working together; Sydney Friskin dictating his piece over the phone and asking me to go and tell Shahbaz he would like an interview, as if not obliging Sydney was ever an option; waiting for Jon Cook to finish working his magic of getting Hockey onto the inside back pages; Dil Bahra's devotion to Sikhs in Hockey and his Hockey stamp collection; bad internet connections and fixing them - especially at World Cup '98 where a frustrated Indian journalist stood up and shouted at his computer "You are f***ing with my happiness". Sadly some of those journalists are no longer with us, but I do cherish their memories and the work they have done to popularise our sport. Thank you ladies and gentlemen of the Press for making this all possible.
Throughout this piece I have used the first person and it may come as a surprise to many that Fieldhockey.com is run by one person. It has taken a lot of my time and I must thank my wife, Helen and family for putting up with my obsession with Hockey and giving me time to do my "work".
Finally, I must thank the companies that have sponsored Fieldhockey.com over the years. Just Hockey Australia, Espada, Mazon, Zoppo and Sportplan are currently keeping the site going. Dita USA and Barrington Sports were major sponsors in the past. I would not be able to afford to do this without you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
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