Hope for hockey rekindles in rural Odisha as state gets ready for 2023 World Cup

As a kid growing up in the hockey mad district of Sundargarh, Vijay Kumar Lakra always knew where to find the best spot to watch a game.

Local weekend games with a chicken or goat as a prize are held by almost every village in this part of Odisha state. They routinely draw crowds of hundreds of spectators, so space is at a premium.

“People are gathered around the pitch. If you’re a little late, you won’t have a chance to watch. Then you might have to climb a tree to get a good view,” says Lakra, who went on to play hockey for his state and is now a coach at Rourkela Sports Hostel — one of the state’s premier academies for training hockey talent.

Lakra doesn’t plan to fight for a spot in a few months when Rourkela hosts the Ice Hockey World Championships early next year.

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The games will be played at the uncompleted Birsa Munda Stadium, which will seat around 20,000 fans – the most of any ice hockey stadium in the country. And while construction is in full swing on the stadium that’s earning Rourkela’s reputation as a steel city – built mostly from the alloy – Lakra already has an idea of ​​where he’ll be sitting.

He points to the top tier of the spectator stands along the center line where the pitch will be laid.

“As soon as this stadium is built, I will sit there. This is the best place to watch. You can see everything there. You will be like a bird watching the game. There is no better place to watch hockey than this place in this stadium,” says Lakra.

Vijay Lakra (in yellow) believes the real benefits of the stadium will come after the World Cup, when village youth will get a chance to play on the same turf as World Cup teams. -Jonathan Selvaraj

While Lakra’s eyes will be on the field, the stadium itself is only part – albeit the centerpiece – of Rourkela’s transformation in preparation for the 2023 Hockey World Cup, which will be held in January next year.

Around 130 crores are expected to be spent on the stadium alone – the lion’s share of the Rs 650 crore that the Odisha government is spending to prepare the city for the world event.

“The administration has launched projects worth around Rs 650 crore, excluding the cost of the main stadium which is estimated at Rs 130 crore,” says district collector Nikhil Pawan Kalyan. “The stadium will be the center of activity, but other parts of the city will also benefit,” says Kalyan.

An airport will be built for commercial flights, roads will be widened, sports and leisure centers will be developed, the city’s drainage system will be repaired and even another bridge over the Brahmani River will be built.

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“There is work going on in every corner of the city. We are building for the World Cup, but we also look beyond that,” says Kalyan.

The focus remains, as Kalyan says, the sport.

In fact, Rourkela Stadium is just the latest sports project in which the Odisha State Government has invested significant sums of money.

While Rourkela Stadium is expected to be one of the flagship buildings for the 2023 World Cup, the state government has also been working to provide smaller multi-purpose venues across the state.

In Sundargarh alone, the district boasts 16 ice hockey artificial turfs.

It’s all part of the “sports for youth, youth for the future” thrust that makes Odisha an ideal environment for sports culture, says R. Vineel Krishna, the state’s sports minister. “The idea is to give these youngsters the right tools. So these young people will start lawn training very early in their formative years,” says Krishna of this initiative.

Not only hockey benefits from this.

In the sports complex of the state capital’s Kalinga Stadium, several facilities for other sports are being built – including an athletics hall, a tennis stadium and a badminton complex.

Over time, the state, which hosted the Asian Athletics Championships at Kalinga Stadium in 2017 and will host the U-17 Women’s World Cup later this year, is expected to bid for other sporting events as well.

The immediate priority, of course, will be ice hockey.

The youngsters in Rourkela are looking forward to seeing world-class ice hockey at home. -Jonathan Selvaraj

The state has long been associated with the sport contributing to the Indian team, both in terms of players – Sundergarh district alone has produced over 85 caps – and in terms of financial support – the state has been the main sponsor of the Indian men and women’s ice hockey teams in the past five years.

Since 2018, Kalinga Stadium has been the permanent training base for both men’s and women’s ice hockey teams.

But while the stadium in Bhubaneswar is the established venue, it’s international ice hockey’s return to the Birsa Munda complex in Rourkela that is perhaps more poetic.

Although Bhubaneswar was originally intended to be the sole venue for the World Cup, just a few years ago Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik made a last minute decision to move the tournament to Rourkela and build a brand new stadium there.

It’s a call that may have led to a race against time to get the stadium ready, but also objectively the right one. Rourkela, after all, sits right in the middle of the tribal belt that has served as the reservoir of talent that Indian hockey has always drawn from.

“It’s going to be huge for tribal children,” says Dilip Tirkey, a former Indian hockey team captain who is from the region himself. “Up to now, Rourkela has not even hosted an international match. Now there is a World Cup. Imagine that,” he says.

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The youngsters in Rourkela are looking forward to seeing world-class ice hockey at home. Youngsters at Bishan Das Sports Club, who train on an empty field just a few kilometers from the stadium under construction, certainly believe so.

The stadium should be ready before the fifth Ice Hockey World Championship in 2023. -Jonathan Selvaraj

“I’ve seen a lot of games at Panposh Sports Hostel,” says John Paul Kandulna, who trains with the club. “This time I’m looking forward to an international match. Live game kabhi nahi dekha hai (I have never seen a live hockey game). We can certainly take a few skills with us from the international players,” he says.

Even after the World Cup is over, players and coaches believe they can benefit from it.

“It will be great to watch games here, but the real benefits of this stadium will come in a few years. Once the World Cup ends I have been told players from Rourkela and Sundergarh hockey academies will be allowed to train at the stadium. Imagine the confidence a young village player gets when he realizes he’s playing on the same turf that a World Cup player played on. Won’t that give him the confidence to believe he can play there too,” says Lakra.

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