Well, well, well.
The qualification of both Irish teams for their respective Hockey World Cups this year (the women’s in England just past, and the men’s in India towards the end of the year) was seen as a significant step for the sport here, as it had never happened before. The progression of the women’s team all the way to the Final really was a rub-your-eyes fairytale.
What is striking about the above image, courtesy FIH, is how happy the players are to be there. Indeed, running out for the final, far from nerves there were smiles. This was a team which was proud simply to be at the tournament – but also stunningly determined to stay there!
First, a word on the scale of the achievement. Some correspondents thought any comparison with soccer is silly, because the vast majority of countries in the world play soccer whereas very few prioritise hockey. Yet that was the point. Ireland is one of those which doesn’t prioritise hockey, and yet still reached the Final having not even qualified for three previous tournaments.
Indeed, remarkably, only three countries had played in the Final since the tournament became established as a regular four-year event from 1990 – each of the last seven finals had involved two of the Netherlands, Australia or Argentina. It so happened that all three of those plus hosts (and effectively Olympic champions) England ended up on the same side of the draw; and Ireland seized the chance (a chance it had earned by winning England’s group) to come through the other half brilliantly.
Second, there is then the issue that the team’s progress was followed by inevitable calls for better funding. As someone whose whole family in involved in the game – playing and (in my case because I have no actual talent) umpiring – I have no objection to that idea. However, what we saw over the past fortnight was bigger and better than a mere appeal for funding. Indeed, it was the ultimate proof that the best things in life do not involve money.
Hockey, in Ireland (or certainly Ulster) at least, does not do money. Not only are players expected to pay levies (even, until recently, to play for Ireland), but administrators, PR people, coaches and umpires all operate for free – most do not even receive expenses (even at lower levels a football referee, for example, can expect £30 plus travel). The whole culture and basis of the game, therefore, is different from those of sports which are designed from the outset to be professional.
Perhaps because of this, hockey receives very little exposure or coverage. Yet there is a further issue here we may need to contemplate – unusually by global standards, in Ireland hockey is a predominantly female sport (in terms of playing participation by about 2:1). In fact, in Northern Ireland alone, during the season over 2000 women play senior club hockey every weekend, plus many hundreds more in junior clubs and schools. It would be interesting to know if many other sports can match that figure.
The gender issue is a tricky one but it needs to be raised because gender balance is to be achieved not only by encouraging female participation in sports where participation is mainly male, but also surely by encouraging coverage and exposure of sports which are already predominantly female. What happened over the past few days offers a glorious opportunity to address that deficit.
Therefore, beyond any funding issue, there is the broader point that hockey deserves – in terms of everything from the level of volunteer participation to the success of elite level players in the world stage – broader exposure and coverage.
So the next time we see the standard “sports marketing” picture with the supposedly big three sports (soccer, GAA and rugby), let us ask ourselves: what about hockey? And then think of players with smiles on their faces…