In 2007, when the International Hockey Federation (FIH) awarded the 2010 World Cup to India, it was hoped the high-profile event would rekindle interest in the ailing national sport. Calling it the “Project Promoting Indian Hockey", the FIH said its aim was to return Indian hockey to the world’s highest level.

However, the run-up to the event that starts on 28 February in Delhi has not brought about any new hope, rather it has only brought to the surface old problems—unprofessional administration, lack of payments, and political influence.

For starters, the World Cup will be conducted without an elected national hockey federation in place. The national players started training by going on a protest strike against non-payment of dues during the pre-World Cup camp in Pune less than two months before the event. It took a national outcry, some hard bargaining and Rs1 crore from sponsors to get the players back on the field.

A former captain of the Indian team, who did not want to be identified, says hockey officialdom reminds him of Afghanistan. “A number of warring lords fighting for a useless piece of land but invariably getting together during a foreign invasion to project a united front," he says.

United front: Players don’t consistently get incentives, nor do they get salaries from the national federation.

The structure of hockey in India is such that national players are dependent on their clubs for sustenance even while playing for the country. Some former players, including Olympian Joaquim Carvalho, say it is more lucrative to play for an employer than for the country. Most players, if they are good enough to make it to the national side, get jobs with recruiters such as Indian Railways, Air India, some public sector banks, state police forces or oil marketing companies.

Bharat Petroleum Co. Ltd (BPCL), for instance, pays Rs1,000 as daily allowance if a player represents the company in tournaments or even while attending a camp. Air India pays around Rs500 a day. Indian Railways gives a daily allowance to players participating in events approved by the railway board, which are also considered part of their job, so leave is not deducted.

When players represent the country, in camps or in tournaments, they get paid leave. But when it comes to dues from the federation, they have to resort to a “strike" for remuneration.

Singh says the players are often dependent on special leave and salary from their clubs even when on national duty. “The clubs for which the players play give them special leave with salary but they do not get anything extra when on national duty. For an international camp, the players get $30 (Rs1,383) per day, and that comes from the Sports Authority of India (SAI). In domestic tournaments, players get as low as Rs200 per day," he says.

M.M. Somaya, a former India captain and now deputy general manager, brand and PR, BPCL, says that apart from better pay, “there is also less pressure when playing for clubs. Playing for the country impacts your life. A big loss can cost you a lot of self-esteem."

The case is similar for the women’s side. Maharaj Kumar Kaushik, chief coach of the women’s team, says payments to his team have not been made in the last 18 months, though Hockey India “promised that players will be paid on par with the men".

When the Indian Hockey Federation was in place, the graded payment system worked for a short time, but players were given incentives for wins. Once the results deteriorated, the incentives dried up too, says another former India captain, also on condition of anonymity. “So, for many players, when they play for the country, they lose out on the money they would have otherwise made playing for their employers. When you are 20-22, there’s a lot of pride playing for the country. By the time you are 25-27 years old, there are responsibilities and you need to bring some money home," he says.

“Of course, it is more lucrative to play for an employer," says Carvalho, who was the coach of the 2007 Asia Cup-winning side and says that payment for it is still pending. “Players can make over Rs1,000 a day on allowances and you can do the math for how much that counts up to. Whereas for the national side, you have to wait for years."

Everyone agrees that it’s easy to blame the players but their demands are all too reasonable. As a recently retired player, who did not want to be named, adds: “It’s a vicious circle—they say perform and you will be paid, but then, how can you play without incentives?"

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