Liam Morgan

This time next week, members of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) will be meeting to elect their next President.

After a long period where incumbents often breezed into a new term without even the merest hint of a challenge, FIH head Narinder Batra will have to fight off competition from a rival to retain his position at the virtual Congress on Saturday (May 22).

The man standing against him is Belgium's Marc Coudron, who has ensured the FIH will become the latest organisation to have what was once a rarity in the Olympic world - a contested Presidential election.

"There are two main reasons why I decided to be a candidate," the Royal Belgian Hockey Association (KBHB) President told insidethegames.

"Firstly, my term with the KBHB comes to an end in June, so the timing is excellent for me.

"I called Narinder after I decided to be a candidate and said to him that I had nothing personally against him. I have respect for him and have a good relationship with him, but I don’t have the same vision for the development of hockey.

"Now I have to convince different nations to back my candidacy."

Coudron, treasurer and Executive Board member of the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee (BOIC) and a private banker, brings with him a wealth of experience in hockey and sports management.

Not only did he make 358 appearances for Belgium, but his 16-year tenure at the helm of the KBHB has coincided with the country’s rise to the very top of the men’s game, culminating in the nation winning the 2018 World Cup in India.

To put that success into context, Belgium had never even qualified for the knockout phase of a World Cup before winning the tournament three years ago.

Belgium won the men's Hockey World Cup for the first time in 2018 ©Getty Images
Belgium won the men's Hockey World Cup for the first time in 2018 ©Getty Images

Belgium also did not qualify for seven consecutive Olympic Games between 1980 and 2004, before finishing as runners-up at Rio 2016. They are likely to be the world’s top ranked men’s team going into the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and will be among the favourites for gold should the event go ahead as planned.

"It really has been an evolution at all levels," Coudron says of the success enjoyed by Belgium in recent years.

"We didn’t set out to become world champions in 2005 and for me at the time it was impossible for us to reach that level.

"But time after time, every few years, we became more ambitious. Impossible is temporary, as Muhammad Ali said.

"What I have done in Belgium is what I would like to do at world level."

Having overseen an unprecedented period of triumph in his native Belgium, Coudron has set his sights on repairing and improving the FIH, a Federation which had been struggling prior to the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Top of the in-tray of the winner of the election will be the FIH’s financial situation. Earlier this year, my insidethegames colleague David Owen revealed the FIH had lost more than CHF633,000 (£498,000/$702,000/€578,000) in 2019, more than doubling its 2018 deficit.

Many of the FIH’s problems have been attributed to the launch of the Hockey Pro League. The accounts showed TV production costs for the new competition "were underestimated while, at the same time, revenues from broadcasting deals were overestimated."

The document also indicated the Pro League produced a deficit of just over CHF1.5 million (£1.2 million/$1.7 million/€1.4 million) over the course of the year. The direction of travel for the Pro League, Coudron admits, is simply not sustainable.

Marc Coudron, right, is standing against Narinder Batra in the FIH Presidential election ©Getty Images
Marc Coudron, right, is standing against Narinder Batra in the FIH Presidential election ©Getty Images

"We have to get financial sustainability for the FIH, that is among the main priorities," Coudron said. 

"The situation is not the fault, mistake or responsibility of the current President and Executive Board members, but for the moment the FIH has big financial problems and we have to resolve that.

"I am a great fan of the league, but it has to be sustainable. For the moment, that is not the case, and that is something we must deal with if I am elected.

"I will be very attentive and careful about that because if the league has a deficit each year, it is not a good product - for the players of course but also financially."

Coudron has targeted increased investment from sponsors and believes it is crucial the FIH signs a top-tier partner sooner rather than later to help arrest its financial decline.

"I am convinced we can find solutions and get big names to help us develop hockey worldwide," he said.

"Maybe I am being idealistic, but that is what we realised in Belgium. At the beginning we had a very small amount of sponsorship but we have 20 times more than 15 years ago. I hope that we can get the same level of growth if I am elected at the FIH.

"We have to expand the sponsorship portfolio; at the moment it is too low. Without a good and strong financial situation, you cannot do anything and it is impossible to develop hockey worldwide."

Coudron also feels more investment needs to be ploughed into the mid and lower-level countries - a common pledge of any candidate for any role in sport, but one which he believes is especially pertinent for hockey.

The launch of the Hockey Pro League has not gone to plan for the FIH ©Getty Images
The launch of the Hockey Pro League has not gone to plan for the FIH ©Getty Images

Changes to the Hockey Pro League format is one of his suggestions to help address the "huge gap" between the so-called bigger nations and the rest, along with creating another competition to give those outside of the top 10 more exposure and playing time.

"The FIH has decided to invest a lot in the Pro League, it is a good product but it is only for eight to 10 nations," said Coudron.

"The top 10 is a little bit isolated, and we don’t want that. For a team around 25th-30th in the world, they have maybe just one chance out of 20 or 30 to get a draw or beat the top teams in the world, and that is not good.

"The top 10 or 15 nations when I was playing in the 1980s and 90s are the same now as they were then. That is not a criticism of them, but we need more countries that could join the top 10 or 15 in the world within five, 10, 15 years. For the moment it is impossible."

Coudron, a member of the FIH Executive Board between 2010 and 2018, also claims hockey sells itself short when it comes to communicating its "excellent values", such as its track record in attempting to reach the hallowed gender equality.

Prior to the election, six of the FIH Executive Board's 14 ordinary members are women, while two of the five Continental Associations are led by a woman. "Equality is not only a word in hockey, it is the reality," Coudron adds.

Tailoring development to a specific country by promoting hockey 5s - the short-form of the sport which some are fearful will one day replace the traditional 11-a-side game on the Olympic programme - and indoor hockey, depending on the nation involved, is another of his key beliefs.

Throughout our lengthy call, Coudron refuses to engage in any criticism of Batra, whose first tenure as FIH President has been accompanied by its fair share of controversy.

The Belgian did - perhaps inadvertently - aim what some might perceive as a thinly-veiled barb to his rival, who has been accused of prioritising his role as President of the Indian Olympic Association over the FIH.

"If I am elected, I will be 100 per cent dedicated to the FIH," Coudron said. "I will stop my Presidency of Belgium in June and I won’t be a candidate any more for the BOIC. My attention will be fully focused on the FIH."

Marc Coudron made 358 appearances for Belgium during his playing career ©Getty Images
Marc Coudron made 358 appearances for Belgium during his playing career ©Getty Images

The build-up to the election has lacked the public mud-slinging, claims and counter-claims of recent Presidential votes in the Olympic Movement, although the FIH itself has faced criticism from Coudron and others after it initially decided to hold the Congress as a hybrid event, with some attending in-person in New Delhi and others joining virtually.

Those plans were described as "nonsense" and "dangerous" by Coudron before the FIH performed a U-turn and confirmed the Congress would be staged entirely online, a prescient decision given the deadly surge of COVID-19 cases that has ravaged India of late.

As the incumbent, Batra remains the favourite heading into the election, a crucial moment for the FIH and hockey itself, but Coudron predicts the outcome will be tighter than most expect.

"It will be close, I am sure," the Belgian says. "I am confident but I am not sure to win.

"I am motivated to be the next President but like a hockey final, everyone wants to win and there will be one winner and one loser.

"It is like a hockey game, it is not the end of the world. I have my vision, my ideas, and I would like to expand them to the hockey world like I have tried to do in Belgium. I hope I will be given that chance."