India take on South Africa in their opening game
The city of Bhubaneswar loves its hockey and its hockey stars and it makes it very evident.
The Biju Pattnaik International Airport declares it the moment you enter — huge cut-outs of both Indian and foreign stars, a massive sand art welcoming all, Olly the mascot being omnipresent and the favourite selfie spot, a ‘Heart Beats for Hockey’ installation.
For someone not aware of Odisha’s rich hockey history, it might be a surprise. For the people here, though, it is just another way to express their love for the unofficial national sport.
On Wednesday, 15,000 of them would be at the Kalinga Stadium, cheering on as the host takes its first steps to being third time lucky on this ground and ending a four-decade wait for a World Cup ermedal.
These 43 years, however, have also been the albatross around the Indian team’s neck. Despite the sporadic success over this period, Indian hockey, in a way, is yet to find an identity independent of its past that, howsoever glorious, last sparked in 1980.
Seven in the side partially did that two years back, winning the Junior World Cup. This, then, would be a good time for the seniors to finally script a history of their own.
Get over the disappointment
That’s easier said than done, beginning with South Africa on Wednesday. The African champion is keen to put the disappointment of not being allowed to participate at the Rio Olympics and, with nothing to lose, would come out all guns blazing against a host cheered on by capacity crowd.
But the team also has Olympic silver medallist Belgium in its pool, which it needs to top to assure a spot in the quarterfinals. Else, there would be a fight to advance.
Having finished second-best for a while now, the Red Lions are itching to break the jinx and take the final step here. They have the experience and the manpower to do it.
Twice defending champion Australia is raring to be the only team to complete a hat-trick of World Cup titles while Argentina, which tore every formbook to be crowned Olympic champion in 2016 but has been struggling since then, continue to be dangerous nevertheless.
None could be a more serious claimant than the only other team to defend its World title, Germany.
Its last outing in the city was not a happy one and Martin Haner and his men would be keen to set the record straight this time around.
In the mix would also be the Netherlands, England and Spain, the last bolstered by an infusion of young blood from its junior ranks.
Add dark horses Pakistan, New Zealand and Malaysia and the first timers and outliers in China, France, Ireland and Canada, the 16-team event — only the second time in the World Cup — has all the ingredients of a thriller.
The government and the organisers have left no stone unturned to ensure that happens. Last year, the stands were packed in pouring rain even for non-India games.
This year, tickets for the first few days were sold out within hours.
The World Cup, in that respect, can truly be said to have finally come home.