How balance of power in hockey shifted to Europe
Fifteen years ago, there were four teams from Asia in the top 10 rankings. Now, there’s only India while a new set of European nations is breaking out
The quarter-final lineup at this year’s men’s hockey world cup, currently underway in Bhubaneswar, is a good capture of the current balance of power in the sport. There were five teams from Europe, and one apiece from Asia, Oceania and South America. That composition underscores how this century has seen the needle of numbers at the top echelons of the sport move from Asia towards Europe.
That composition is mirrored in the official team rankings in men’s hockey. Fifteen years ago, in 2003, there were four teams from Asia in the top 10: South Korea (ranked 4), Pakistan (5), India (6) and Malaysia (10). By 2008, only South Korea and Pakistan remained. In 2018, these two had slipped out of the top 10, while India had returned to occupy the fifth spot and was the lone Asian representative. By comparison, there are now six teams from Europe in the top 10, up from four in 2015 (chart 1).
However, if we expand those rankings to the top 20 teams, Asia continues to register the numbers. In the top 20, in 2003, there were five Asian teams and eight European teams.
The European count has remained the same, while the Asian count has, in fact, increased by one. In other words, Asian teams have moved from being forces in the top tier to making the numbers in the second tier.
Men’s hockey has seen an expansion in the past 15 years. The count of countries that are ranked by the International Hockey Federation (IHF) has increased from 69 in 2003 to 91 in 2018.
The three powerhouses—Australia, Netherlands, and Germany—remain entrenched at the top end. Increasingly, though, there’s a bigger pool of teams challenging them in their own game.
A new set of nations is breaking out in the sport of field hockey, widening its pool. Notable inclusions in this are Belgium, Argentina and Ireland, all of whom also embody the European traits of hockey, which are fast becoming like a universal template: quick release of the ball, passing over dribbling, and physical hustle (chart 2).
At the hockey world cup, the blue-ribbon event in the sport that is now held once every four years, Australia, Netherlands and Germany have the best records. Before 2018, there have been 13 editions of the event, dating back to 1971. Each of these countries has won at least eight medals each.
Pakistan and India are the only Asian countries to win a medal: six and three, respectively. However, most of those successes came in another era: when hockey was played on grass rather than AstroTurf, when teams could build a game around movement than set pieces, when dribbling as a strategy still had value, when rolling substitution was not the norm. Among modern sports, hockey has been one of the most active in making rule changes to increase its appeal as a spectator sport.
Pakistan holds the record for the maximum number of tournament wins (4), followed by Australia and Netherlands (three apiece). However, Pakistan’s last world cup medal, of any hue, came in 1994. India’s last world cup medal came further back, in 1975.
The drop in India’s returns is not for want of participation. Only four nations—Germany, Netherlands, Spain and India—have featured in all 13 editions of the world cup held before 2018. In terms of performance in the world cup, India has the lowest average position among these nations, of 7.3 (chart 3). India’s win ratio in world cup matches is 43%, which is the ninth best; the best is Australia, with 76%.
In recent years, India has tended to play below its ranking in the world cup. In the previous five editions of the world cup, dating back to 1998, India’s best finish has been eighth (chart 4). In the 19 matches India played in the past three world cups, it managed to win only four en route to losing 12 matches and running up a negative goal difference of 16.
For Indian hockey, the last two decades have been a period of advances and retreats. It has embraced foreign coaches and dumped them. It has embraced Indian coaches and dumped them. India has had 22 coaches in the last 18 years, an average stint of less than a year.
Current Indian coach Harendra Singh is in his fourth stint. He leads a side that is young, plays a brand of hockey that is fairly contemporary and charmed in the group stages. However, the quarter-final defeat to Netherlands on Thursday means it has to endure another wait for a medal, though it still has a chance to register its best finish since 1994.
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