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April 20, 2016 — The FIFA-ization of field hockey?

Monday, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced a couple of major changes to the way field hockey championships are organized and managed. These changes portend great opportunity for some nations, and could be a burden on others, depending on how you look at them.

I think the easiest way to look at what FIH wants to do is to after the 2018 World Cup is to examine the differences between the way FIFA and its member confederations manage men’s soccer around the world as opposed to women’s soccer.

For the most part, women’s soccer teams qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup through regional tournaments where only a certain number of teams qualify. The tournament can last as little as six weeks. UEFA is the only exception, with the group stage of the tournament lasting a year.

Conversely, men’s soccer teams qualify for the FIFA World Cup through a league format, where every team in each group plays everyone else twice, once at home and once on the road. In some places, like South America, the process can last up to three years since everyone in CONMEBOL qualifies for the main tournament.

The latter model is what FIH is aiming for when it comes to how teams qualify for Olympic or World Cup competitions. The World League is going truly global, rather than having teams bid on hosting the low-level tournaments.

We don’t know whether the format of the tournament is going to be based on world ranking or by region. What it does mean is that World League matches are going to be one-off events that are going to be very expensive to maintain. Each nation is going to have to have at least one FIH-compliant facility as well as the infrastructure for video referrals.

Teams will have to travel to single matches on foreign soil, not whole tournaments. This is going to mean that hockey federations are going to have to spend a lot more money to remain competitive in the long run, which means getting more sponsorship for national teams.

And speaking of competitions, the FIH is doing away with the Champions Trophy and its underlying Champions Challenge, which features the top teams in what was seen as a showpiece tournament for non-Olympic and non-World Cup years. The showpiece, however, has been tarnished by a certain lack of competitiveness. Argentina and Holland have won nine out of the last 10 women’s tournaments, and either Germany or Australia have won eight out of the last nine men’s tournaments.

It isn’t just the results of the tournament that have led to the Champions Trophy to feel like a closed hegemony. The world rankings points awarded to the teams have skewed the competitive balance in world hockey in favor of the top nations, making it very difficult for an “outsider” team to earn its way into the top five in world ranking.

Since subsequent Champions Trophy fields are filled out by world ranking, success in this tournament feeds upon itself, and keeps the elite teams there. When you look at the current world rankings, the United States women, though they made the Final Four at the last FIH World Cup, are ranked seventh. That’s because the States have not made a Champions Trophy since 1997.

I’ll be interested to see how world rankings evolve once the Champions Trophy points flow out of the ranking system, and whether the rankings reflect current form rather than rewarding the select few.

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