In the past few years, Odisha has arguably become the home of hockey in India. The state government, led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, officially sponsors both senior national teams, and has put the spotlight on the game like never before. Having hosted the previous World Cup and now gearing up to do it once again, the state, on January 8, added another feather in its cap—the Rourkela international stadium. Till now, the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar was the only international venue in the state. Named after the tribal leader Birsa Munda, the new stadium can seat around 21,000 fans; it also has a World Cup village with 225 rooms that can house 400 players. The spanking venue will host 20 of the 44 matches this World Cup.
Rourkela is in Sundargarh district, which is the cradle of hockey in the state. It has produced several India players, two of whom are in the current team—men’s vice captain Amit Rohidas and defender Nilam Sanjeep Xess. Children in Sundargarh start their hockey journey early, often playing with sticks fashioned out of tree branches. Many village-level tournaments are organised throughout the year. To further boost the sport’s popularity in Sundargarh, the Patnaik government recently laid AstroTurf in grounds in each of the district’s 17 blocks. THE WEEK visited one of these blocks, Kuarmunda, on the day the turf was being laid. From schoolchildren to the elderly, everyone was thrilled with the development. Said Rakhi, a little hockey fan: “We never expected this. We will also play on this turf one day. So far, we have only played in the local fields.”
The children of the area, and the state, are also charmed by the mascot of the World Cup—Olly the Olive Ridley turtle, through whom the government wants to raise awareness about the environment.
On the eve of the stadium’s inauguration, THE WEEK reached Sanjeep’s home in Kadobahal gram panchayat, some 50km away. Bipin Xess, his father, welcomed us into his home. “We never dreamt that our son would play for India,” he says. “Both my sons used to play hockey when they were little. One day, a teacher in Sanjeep’s school suggested I send him to a hostel in Sundergarh to study and play.” His mother, Jira, stood beside him, struggling to hold back her tears.
Nearly 15,000 people turned up to see the inauguration of the Birsa Munda stadium. “Hockey is not just a sport in Odisha, it is a way of life,” Patnaik said while inaugurating the stadium.