On the afternoon of March 14th 2012, former Holland hockey star Sander van der Weide called his friend Leandro Martínez-Zurita to make him a very special offer: “Do you want to play for an Indian team, beginning now? It’ll be just for two weeks and they’ll pay us very well”. Hockey in Europe is an amateur sport and for “very well” Van der Weide meant to earn €3.000 each week with the New Delhi Wizards. Van der Weide, 36, is an Olympic gold medalist and world champion. Martínez-Zurita, 34, is a Spanish lawyer and a businessman who has played for three of the best German and Spanish hockey clubs. Both, Leandro and Sander, live in Barcelona and still play hockey, in a regional league. They play for fun: to do some sport and to share a couple of after-match beers with their mates. That’s the reason why Martínez-Zurita was amazed when he received the offer of Van der Weide. They are still in good shape but unfit for the physical strength of the World Series Hockey (WSH), a one month professional tournament sponsored by Bridgestone and ruled by the companies owning the eight franchises fighting for the cup.
Leandro and Sander were not fit to give their best, but the Delhi Wizards counted on them anyway. They first contacted Sander because he is a kind of a hockey legend and because his technical abilities, far more superior than the average of the WSH players. Wizards’ results during the first half of the tournament were poor and they were in urgent need of hiring skilful players from abroad. Compared to the other teams, Wizards had less foreign players, only three: Van der Weide, 37 years-old German European cup winner Philip Sunkel and the captain of the Pakistan national team, Shakeel Abbasi.
Wizards were in need of more expertise from other foreign stars. But old stars indeed, because they couldn’t hire the big names, young players competing for the best leagues in Europe and Australia. The WSH was a private owned initiative managed apart from the Hockey India (HI), the government-backed national federation and representative of the India at the International Hockey Federation (FIH). The FIH, pressed by the HI, ruled that all players competing on the WSH should be banned to play for certain months at any official tournament. This happened in 2012, year of the London Olympics. In 2012 only former stars were able to play the WSH with no risk of losing the chance to be in the Olympics. This year 2013, the situation has changed: an agreement between the HI and the FIH allowed the best players in the world to join a new and richer championship: the Hockey India League (HIL). Things have improved; TV audience and assistance to the stadiums have grown, but when all began with the WSH, there was a unique feeling of El Dorado, of being Mavericks conquering a new world.
CHENNAI: ENEMY ZONE.
Sixteen hours after my Turkish Airlines flight departed from Barcelona, after two stops (in Istanbul and Delhi), travelling on a plane full of new wealthy Indians coming back home, I arrived at Chennai, on the coast of South East India. This was the first of two stages following the Delhi Wizards. Chennai is the capital of the Tamil ethnic region, a city populated by five millions people. The Chennai Super Kings are one of the best national cricket teams. This is the absolute leading sport in India, but the WSH made the first effort to open a new market, and that meant that they should convince kids in Chennai or anywhere in Indian cities that hockey rocks as much as cricket.
Hockey in India is a more rural sport than cricket, which by tradition is more urban and more elitist, while hockey is in every school and is more affordable to be played. On the contrary, in the US and Europe field hockey is a game played by high income social groups. Jaswinder Singh is one the leading players of Delhi Wizards. He played ten years for the Indian Oil hockey team and, as gold medalist in the 2007 Asia Cup, he enjoys a higher status than other team mates. He is 32 and soon will retire, but he already works as assistant manager the Indian Oil. He assures that “hockey is in the heart of Indians, as well as cricket”, but field hockey influence during school years “is more intense because every village, even the poorest ones, has one hockey pitch”. Maesh Dayhl is a costumes police officer at the Delhi International Airport and former professional hockey player. Dayhl has a non profit hockey school for 110 poor children. They train in a public park not far from his home. Dayhl is clear about the main differences between the two sports: “Hockey is for the poor and cricket is for the rich, that’s the reason why more and more people want to play cricket, that’s the reason that this sport had a better acceptance on the media”.
Maesh Dayhl sits in his apartment in Delhi while a girl from the Nepalese border, that he and his wife recently adopted, brings us cookies and tea. The Dayhl family is far away from Chennai; they live in a comfortable and colonial-style building in Delhi. You cannot find these life standards in Chennai. This city is even more chaotic and warmer than the capital. Neighborhoods are still clearly divided by religions, and people stare at you because they are not used to see Westerners. But in the middle of hordes of rural migrants, old buses carrying thousands of engineering students, filthiness on the streets and beggars, there are also brand new bus stops with bright and colorful advertisements of the WSH introducing the stars of Chennai Cheetahs, the local team.
Radha is the manager of the Royal Regency, my hotel in Chennai. It was supposed to be the hotel where the Delhi Wizards were staying, but they changed their mind at the last moment when they saw that the Royal Regency didn’t satisfy their requirements of hygiene. Although Radha gives me one of their best suites, the room has not been properly clean and smells like urine and cigarettes. Radha works 12 hours at the hotel and tries to be very polite with me. She is upset because the hockey stars from the capital didn’t want to stay at the Royal Regency. At least she seems satisfied to have a foreign journalist in the hotels’ guests list. Radha says she is a hockey fan, but she regrets that there is no TV hockey channel in India: “Cricket was not that popular 20 years ago, but TV changed it. Hockey should be promoted because our children should practice more sport. They do not practice enough sport and next generations will suffer of bad health”.
China and India, the two most populated countries in the world, have different approaches to education in sports. Olympics are one of the best examples to prove the wide gap that exists between the two countries on this subject: in London 2012 China won 88 medals (38 golds), while India won 6 medals –none of them were gold.
The Wallajah Road is an avenue that ends at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, home of the Chennai Kings. Along Wallajah Road there are several small sport stores selling all kind of stuff for tennis, football, footing but specially hockey and cricket. Obald Fernando is an employee at Joy Sports. He tells me that 80% of their sells are cricket material, while almost 20% comes from hockey. “One year ago hockey represented 15% of our total sales”. Almost all the hockey brands they sell are made in India, mainly Punjab and Vampire. The average price for a hockey stick is 1.100 rupees ($20), 450 rupees ($8.5) for a child’s stick. “A cricket kit is more expensive and hockey facilities are becoming of better quality and easier to find”, says Fernando. Nevertheless, he plays cricket since he was 9 years old. He is 24 years old and spends his part time job salary on his audiovisual studies. He wants to follow the example of his boss at Joy Sports, Privinath Kumar, and open his own business. Kumar and his colleague G. Gunda founded Joy Sports in 2009. Both come from a rural village in Tamil Nadu province, they are sons of local peddlers and they move to Chennai to establish Joy Sports. At the beginning they were specialized in athletic outfits but soon they realized that cricket was more profitable.
Kumar and Gunda receive me on a small back door office with just one fan, one desk and one computer. They are proud of what they achieved and they are confident that hockey popularity will keep its growth because they will profit from it, but there is still a lot to do for field hockey to match the reputation of cricket. Near Joy Sports, in Anna Salai district, there is the Higginbotham’s Book Store, the oldest bookshop in India. The week I visited Higginbotham’s the top bestseller was ‘The secret letters of the monk who sold his Ferrari’. I took a look at the sports section and discovered that they only had two books about hockey, published by the Hockey Federation, while I counted more than a hundred titles devoted to cricket. Chess was second after cricket with more than 30 titles.
THE LAST MEETING
Delhi Wizards stayed at the best hotel in Chennai, the Pride Hotel. I arrived on time to attend the meeting team before the crucial game against Chennai. The winner of the match would still have chances to qualify for the next round. The meeting is scheduled three hours before the match. It is arranged in one conference room of the hotel. Players gather around sandwiches, snacks, tea and water. Once all players sat, the IT and statistics man of Delhi Wizards, Maulik Egjar, projected an inspiring power point with portraits of the players and their nicknames, plus a resume of the previous game, a 2-6 win against Pune Strikers. After the projection, the manager of the team, Sandeep Mehta, announced that if they win the game, they would earn a 50% increase on the bonus.
Sandeep Mehta makes all the talk with the players. The coach, Darryl D’Souza, says not a word. Sikh players ruled Wizards tactics and D’Souza was a mere observer, according to Martínez-Zurita and Sunkel. Out of the pitch, Mehta was the man deciding everything. He is the representative of Wizcraft, a media company owner of TV shows and music festival that sponsored the Delhi Wizards. He traveled aside from the team while his players had been crossing the country by bus, even by night, sleeping on the vehicle. His right hand, Varun Bartra, was the man arranging everything on the field. He has been working for Metha and Wizcraft for a long time. His greatest achievement was the organization of the 2011 Indian Film Academy Awards, held in Toronto, Canada. Now he had to deal with something new for him and his company: to manage a sports team. “Certainly there are differences between the high class players [namely, the Sikhs] and the others, but I guess this is like in Europe. The difference is that hockey in India can become something big, massive”, says Bartra.
There are other differences, stadiums for example: they are huge. Chennai Mayor RadhaKrishnan Stadium has a 10,000 people capacity. In other countries, hopefully a game attracts one thousand people. Chennai sold about 50% of the tickets for the game against the Delhi Wizards. Chennai Cheetahs was a new team but the atmosphere was more cheerful than in any football stadium in Europe. There you had two orchestras and a DJ animating the assistance. People danced and shouted as they were assisting to the final of the cup. Even Mayank Dimri and Eapen Abraham, two engineers who had nothing to do with hockey, cheered as if they were partying in a karaoke. Dimri, 26 years, and Abraham, 36, work for Sify, an internet software and data hosting company. Abraham told me that people is eager to watch hockey games specially if there are Indian national team stars playing: “When I was a kid I watched hockey on TV, for example when India played against Pakistan. Politicians divided and diminished this sport, but if they allow business to make it grow, everything will be fine”, said Abraham.
Business, Bridgeston in this case, sponsored the WSH and rewarded the MVP of each game with a 10,000 rupees ($US185) check. ‘Business’ are also the national companies that sustain the Indian regional leagues and give a job to Indian players.
Stars like former India national captain Rajpal Singh (29) do not have to worry about their professional future. He played for a long time for the Indian Oil hockey team, together with other Delhi Wizard team mates like Jaswinder Singh. Rajpal Singh plays for the Punjab Police hockey team. Punjab, in north-west India, is the province where Rajpal Singh and most of the sikh players come from. Rajpal Singh also works as a deputy superintendent at the Punjab Police. The goalkeeper of Delhi Wizards Kamaldeep Singh, another sikh who joined the Punjab Police team, has been playing ten years for the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).
Philip Sunkel spent six weeks with the Delhi Wizards. He admitted that he was fed up of the way the Indians managed the team. For Sunkel, that was chaos compared to how teams in Hamburg train and play. With the arrival of Van der Weide and Martínez-Zurita, Sunkel cheered up and looked for the companion of the Europeans. The three Europeans had a close relation with the sikh players of Delhi Wizards. “Players from Punjab are more prepared, they are tougher and they always look into to your eyes. On the contrary, there are Indians who treat you as if they were your serfs, and they never talk in the team meetings”, says Sunkel.
Chennai Cheetahs had three Australians and one Pakistani player fighting for its colors. The Australians, Brent Livermore (captain), Joseph Reardon and Mark Harris were big stars for the local supporters. But the brightest star was the coach, the Spaniard José Brasa, India national team trainer from 2009 to 2010. He was great echoing the public chorus during the game and after that he was ‘assaulted’ by dozens of youngsters asking for his autograph. “Hockey in India needed a show like this to grow. And now we have it”, said Brasa.
Back in Delhi, I discovered that Maulik Egjar, 27 years old, was one of the most interesting pals of Delhi Wizards. I chatted with him on the bus that carried us from our hotel in Chattarpur, far from the downtown of Delhi, to the National Stadium, home of the Wizards and the biggest hockey stadium in Asia. Egjar’s regular occupation is to analyze statistics for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and for the national cricket team. He volunteered to assist Wizards because he wanted to apply his sport software into hockey. “Hockey is still far below the development of cricket. Hockey is in need of commercial promotion. A few days before the WSH began, nobody in India knew anything about the event”, says Egjar. He is from Gandhinagar, Gujarat, one of the business leading states of India. His father was a salesman and earned a monthly income of 30 rupees. At night he studied civil engineering and finally got a job at a state company that provides agricultural services. “My parents are proud of what I achieved, they taught me to be tough and to persist”. His life and origins remind me of a novel of best-seller author Chetan Bhagat that I bought at Delhi Airport, ‘The 3 mistakes of my life’, a fiction based on a true story about a boy that lives in Gujarat and makes true his dream of opening a cricket shop in his town.
Although Egjar acknowledges that hockey still do not inspire mass media products, at least there is one Bollywood movie based on hockey, ‘Chak de India’. The film, released on 2007, is starred by Shah Rukh Khan and tells the story of the Indian ladies national team in its path to win the world cup. Despite the movie, Shah Rukh Khan is a fan of cricket and owns the Premier League club Kolkata Knight Riders.
‘Chak de India’ was filmed at the National Stadium. The facilities are gorgeous but the stadium was too big (has a capacity of 20,000 people) for Wizards’ irrelevant last game. Wizards were already disqualified and on the stands, Punjab supporters of the Sher-e Punjab, the best team and winners of the WSH, were the leading chorus. At the end of the game, apart from Bridgsestone and its Man of the Match award, two more local sponsors, the cosmetics company Nature and Seagram’s whiskey brand Imperial Blue, gave prizes. Khaled Singh was the beneficiary of the Nature check, included some of its products plus a monetary reward by Wizcraft recognizing his good performance that day.
At the same hour, about thirty teenagers were training on the hockey pitches around the National Stadium. They were 12 to 15 years-old kids enlisted to a national program to develop the sport. More than 300 hundred youngsters play hockey there paying 75 rupees a month -25 rupees if they are from low classes. Keshor Arrea is 13 years old and spends 45 minutes to arrive to the training from his house at Mehroli district. Keshor confirmed me that most of his mates prefer to play cricket “because you can live on that”. He chose field hockey because it was an Olympic sport.
SHOW ME THE MONEY.
The day after the game against Sher-e Punjab, Wizards killed their time at the hotel chatting and waiting for the moment to leave Delhi. But first they expected to receive their salary. Barun Vartra called them one by one to his room. Armed with a calculator and a file full of notes, he delivered every player his money inside an envelope. The last night, all players and staff met Sandeep Mehta at the restaurant of the hotel to celebrate a last meeting with beers and souvenirs honoring their work. “Wizards have been a great experience for me and for my company. No regrets. I’m proud of being part of the team that won the four best teams of the league”, said Mehta. Hours before that gathering, Mehta assured me that Wizcraft had a three years plan to invest in hockey with the aim “to imitate the NBA model of franchises, drafts and with no budget limitations. We want to stay in this sport”. After that, Mehta added that together with hockey, he expected Wizcraft to invest in football sponsoring.
One year later, the second edition of WSH has been postponed because the official HIL prevailed. The HIL has five franchises while the WSH had eight. ESPN’s Star Sports TV channel broadcasted the HIL and the main sponsors were the telecommunications company Airtel and Hero, a motorbikes maker. According to The Times of India, TV share of the HIL surpassed the audience of events such as the 2012 Euro Football Cup. According to The Times of India, the WSH reached every week and average audience of 8.9 millions people, while the HIL got and audience of 15 millions, according to AFP. Moreover, the HIL achieved more than 511,000 fans on Facebook, while the WSH got 61,000.
Despite what Mehta told me, Wizcraft didn’t join the HIL. Delhi has been represented by the Delhi Wave Riders, a franchise owned by the Wave Group, an audiovisual production company. On July 2012 Wizcraft announced that they were creating a new sports marketing company, Sports One. Nothing specific was said about hockey but Wizcraft emphasized that international football was a priority for Sports One.