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Ric Charlesworth: Teams of nine are the way forward

It appears even soccer (football) is considering some significant changes. Marco Van Basten as technical Director of FIFA has raised the possibility of managing the player load, changing the shootout rules and even moving to remove offside.

He correctly suggests soccer needs a sin bin (like hockey) for penalising player fouls and misbehaviour. He also had a go at the fact that too often those with money and power make the rules not necessarily for the good of the game. Given FIFA’s recent history this would come as no surprise.

Watching the start of the fifth edition of the Hockey India League, I mused about what might be the best way forward for our game in an environment of fierce competition for talent.

There was a time when the options for women in sport were sparse but with the growth of women’s football and cricket and the progressive development of netball the women’s scene is also more crowded. Now in Australia, Australian football and rugby sevens are establishing a female presence so our sport cannot take for granted its place as an early choice in a narrow field of women’s team sports.

In the men’s game the competition has always been there and our place as a secondary sporting choice for many is well established. So what does hockey offer as its advantages?

  1. It can be a family activity where clubs provide opportunity for both sexes, all ages and many levels of capacity.
  2. It is not seen as a pathway to great riches or fame yet it provides opportunities for high performance. For most it is seen as a Corinthian activity rather than an end in itself. There is a place for this in a world where recreation may become more available.
  3. Mostly, hockey is not a game in which you are likely to be beaten up and require the physical rigors of a game such as rugby or Australian football. Skill, speed, endurance and guile are critical.

Big hit: unlike Aussie Rules, you are unlikely to be beaten up playing hockey

The challenge is to grow and maintain hockey’s elite competitions, extend its media profile and appeal and grow its numbers and reach. I believe we are truly in an existential struggle with other sports and there is a need to be smart, flexible and creative.

The shop window of the sport is the international game whether in full international competition or regional club competitions.

These competitions reveal the game at the highest level and are critical for the game’s health and future. The move proposed by the International Hockey Federation  to play elite home and away games for the top nations ought not take the edge off the traditional international tournaments.

What it will provide for is “home” games on a regular basis that one hopes will provide a revenue stream to make an expensive proposal possible.

The FIH are ambitious about what this might bring to the game and has sought to improve the game’s marketability.

In order for their proposal to work there will need to be willingness for all national bodies to work in the game’s interests and forgo some of their local interests. Many of us would love to be privy to the negotiations that will be required to progress the new proposals, which are planned for the first part of 2019. The scheduling of these changes and the way the game looks in Tokyo will be important parts of an emerging ‘shop window’ for our game. It will be fascinating to see whether the broader interests of the game will prevail.

What about the proposals of Van Basten? Will they benefit football? I am not so sure. Taking away offside will just make the game more like European handball, which he seeks to avoid. The scoring zone will be full of players (all 11 of them) who will build a wall in front of the ball with no space behind which offside affords. That change might be counter productive, as it would have been in hockey had we not allowed scoring with the edge. That was an unplanned and fortuitous change that now accounts for half the goals scored.

I believe the best move to increase more dynamic play would be to introduce interchange. I am not convinced about quarters as this removes the attritional aspect that can be so interesting. Likewise, I have always favoured the golden goal before the shootout which is too often the decider. Portugal won the European Championships with only one full time victory in seven matches!

For hockey I believe the many rule changes introduced have greatly improved the game but the next change I would like to see is a move to 9-a-side in order to allow more space and to make defending more difficult. This could occur at every level and if accompanied by a requirement for one player to stay in the attacking half means only seven are defending. Such a shift retains the field dimensions and maintains the traditional skills yet opens up space. I would love to see our game go there!

This article originally appeared in The Hockey Paper on Wednesday 25th January. 

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