About 16 years ago, this site was one of the few discussing the need to have more home international field hockey matches in the yearly schedule, rather than playing regional and world tournaments in far-flung locales.
This morning at the FIH World Congress in Dubai, it was announced that there would be a new world-level event to replace the Champions Trophy and Champions Challenge I and II. The event, which doesn’t have a formal name yet, but was referred to in Congress as “the home-and-away league,” does what it says on the tin. A select group of nations, both on the men’s and the women’s side, will be obligated to host home fixtures periodically for a four-year cycle, starting in 2019.
“This will look different, this will feel different,” said Sarah Massey, the events and marketing director at FIH. “This isn’t tournament hockey anymore.”
Instead of summoning six, or eight, or even 16 elite teams to come to a world event held over a one-to-four-week period, the new event will be held over a four-year cycle with men’s and women’s teams criss-crossing the globe for one high-stakes field hockey game in each country.
The participants, at least for this first go-round, will be selected by FIH based on an application process. The size of the league will be based solely upon the number of teams participating; there is no fixed number.
But like FIFA World Cup qualification in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, each team has to travel, and national governing bodies could choose a venue to accentuate home-field advantage. For American fans, this could mean hosting a team in a humid August afternoon at Spooky Nook, or a chilly February in Virginia Beach, or the dry heat of Chula Vista, Calif. in September.
The winner of the new league won’t be determined until a four-team grand final which will take place in a predetermined location, and the details about how exactly the league will generate revenue have yet to be fleshed out.
According to Massey, the working group combed through proposals for 16 months before settling on the new league as part of the world governing body’s new events calendar.
There will still be a World Cup and an Olympics, remaining at two-year intervals. But there will also be a two-level World League which will have regional tournaments leading to a 24-team second round which will consist of three eight-nations tournaments. Presumably, the winners of those three tournaments will gain a benefit such as qualification for a World Cup.
According to David Luckes, the Director of Sport for FIH, the reason for keeping World League Round 1 in the events calendar is that the number of participants playing in those early rounds has grown to about 75, a significant growth from World League’s first iteration.
Olympic qualification for 2020 will also be remarkably similar to what was done before, with only the hosts (Japan) and the five continental champions qualifying automatically. The other four slots are reserved for the top four in the “home-and-away league,” then from the top qualifiers from World League 2, then based on world ranking.
But presumably because the inaugural “home-and-away league” won’t hold its inaugural Grand Final until 2023, there is going to have to be a different process to select the 12 teams playing in Tokyo.
The new league appears to mirror those that FIH used in previous iterations in one respect: the barrier to entry is somewhat high, and it’s likely that the U.S. women could very well prosper in the new format, while the U.S. men will find it difficult to make it into the new event.
Regardless, this means that the term “FIH matchday” will soon enter the lexicon as the world governing body is moving towards a more predictable calendar.
And, given the unpredictability of said calendar over the last two decades (witness, for example, the wide variations of when the Junior World Cups have been held since 1997), this can only be a good thing.