Advocates of five-a-side indoor hockey promote the change from six-a-side with the promise that it will provide more open, and more exciting, hockey. I’ve just come back from the European indoor championships in Vienna, and the advocates clearly have not seen the new version being played at the highest level. Hockey has a history of unexpected consequences from rule changes, and this is the most recent example.
Despite a history going back to before World War II, and the development of the game through the 1950s, it was not until 1968 that the International Hockey Federation (FIH) officially recognised indoor hockey. There are occasions when one suspects that the FIH, and the rule makers in particular, don’t really understand it. The fiasco over the ‘glove on the floor’ abortive rule change a couple of seasons back is a good example. And the new rule change, reducing the number of players from six to five has – far from making the game more exciting – turned it into a bore. The rule makers’ historical intention of keeping all versions of the game as similar as possible has failed miserably. It’s hockey Jim, but not as we know it.
The need for change, we are told, came from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The FIH introduced a version of hockey, with simplified rules and fewer players, in 2012. This was Hockey5s, which will be played at the 2014 Youth Olympics. But the IOC was unhappy with so many versions of hockey, and that was the driver behind having just two sets of rules. Hence indoor hockey lost a player.
So what’s the problem? It’s those damned coaches again, doing what they always do – exploiting the rule change. Quite simply, when you are in attack you take your goalkeeper off, and when you are defending you put them back on again. Quite apart from the unedifying sight of seeing a goalkeeper sprint off the halfway mark to reach their goal before an attacking forward does, it has other consequences. It seems to create a sort of torpor in the attacking team. Terrified of conceding the ball when there is an undefended goal behind them, they are often content to simply bat the ball around amongst themselves. Meanwhile, the outnumbered opposition defence hunker down with the watchword, “They shall not pass.” If you simply look at results, and don’t actually watch the games, you might claim that the scores show otherwise. There have been some high scoring matches since the rule change. But many of these goals have been as a result of the ball being simply walked into an empty goal. Exciting? I think not.
Fortunately I am not alone in my views. Amongst those who realise a change must be made is no less a luminary than the president of the FIH Leandro Negre. It does not look like we will go back to six-a-side, but two solutions are being floated. One is the compulsory requirement to have a goalkeeper on the pitch. The other, surprisingly, is to allow a limited amount of lifting of the ball. Now that would be exciting!
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