How Bhopal, Once India's 'Hockey Nursery', Lost Its Craze for the Sport
Once the Mecca of hockey in India, Bhopal has not seen a major hockey player emerge in the last 2 decades.
Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, was once known as the 'nursery of hockey' in India, having produced over 10 Olympians and 17 national players.
But, in the last two decades, the city has not given India a single Olympian. The last of the golden era players being Sameer Dad, who represented the country at the Sydney Olympics of 2000.
So, what changed for Bhopal and the city's love for hockey?
The reasons are many – from factionalism, alleged bias and the sport itself getting mired in the politics of hockey management.
Until the 1980s, the city boasted of around 65 clubs along with 10 teams of government departments and public sector undertakings like BHEL, Indian Airlines, Police Department, ONGC and others.
The government departments and PSUs employed these players and gave them an opportunity to polish their talents.
"Playing hockey on Aishbagh stadium, which was built in 1978 by Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC), was a matter of prestige and players were regarded with great honour in the city," recalled Jalaluddin Rizvi, Arjuna Awardee and member of the national hockey team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Apart from the prestigious national-level Obaidullah Khan Gold Cup, which was started in 1931 by the Nawab of Bhopal, dozens of tournaments took place every year in the city till about 1980-1982.
They helped nurture young local talent, with foreign players also coming to participate, and helped the locals pick up new skills as well.
But as factionalism grew, the clubs started shutting down, and government departments stopped patronising teams.
"In 1984, two teams from Bhopal went to Delhi to participate in Rangaswamy National Hockey Championship, which dampened the image of Bhopal hockey and selectors didn't pay much attention to Bhopali teams. Owing to factionalism that affected selection, the teams failed to win knockout matches," Rizwi said, adding that this was the final nail in the coffin for hockey in the city.
Bhopal produced a number of international players in the pre-Independence era, including Ahmad Sher Khan, who played with legendary players like Dhyan Chand. Inam-ur-Rehman, Syed Jalaluddin Rizvi and Sameer Dad are some of the stars from the city who represented the nation in the years post Independence at the Olympics.
In the last two decades, Bhopal has produced barely a handful of international players in hockey like Mohammad Umar (gold, Junior Men’s Asia Cup, 2015), Affan Yousuf (gold, Asian Champions Trophy, 2016) and currently Team India player from Bhopal in junior women’s team, goalkeeper Khusboo Khan.
The oldest and the only Hockey stadium of Madhya Pradesh, the Aishbagh Hockey Stadium, is waiting for a revival for years – from its building to the playing turf. The stadium has become a bone of contention between the sports department and the municipal corporation.
"The ripped turf of the stadium needs to be changed, which often leads to injuries during practise," said 16-year-old Gulrez Khan, who lives 3 km away from the stadium and practices there twice a day.
"Inspired by India's recent performance at the Tokyo Olympics, many children have started practicing at Aishbagh stadium, which is located in the centre of the city and is free of cost," said Dad, who was recently made coach of the Madhya Pradesh men's hockey team.
The passion on display by the veteran and the enthusiastic teenagers practicing daily confirms that Bhopal is still devoted to hockey. Though the revival of the sport in the city won't be easy, Dad is intent on doing all that he can.
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