Geoff Berkeley

Just over eight years ago, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) introduced a new discipline to the world of sport - and one that could yet hold the key to generating mass interest and injecting much-needed money into the organisation.

In April 2013, hockey5s - the FIH's version of Twenty20 cricket, 3x3 basketball or rugby sevens - arrived on the international scene.

There was no grand ceremony where officials heralded a new era for the sport.

In fact, it was a quite an understated introduction with 10 boys' under-16 teams going head-to-head at the Asia Cup at the Sengkang Hockey Stadium in Singapore.

A crowd of 1,000 watched on that day as Pakistan and Bangladesh secured their places at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games by reaching the final.

It was the first step for the five-a-side format in what look set to be a promising future as it went on to feature on the programme at Nanjing 2014 and Buenos Aires 2018.

"We had seen the success of the 3x3 basketball at the last Youth Olympic Games [in Singapore], as well as the impact that Twenty20 and rugby sevens have had on cricket and rugby respectively," said Ken Reid, then the chairman of the FIH Competitions Committee, ahead of hockey5s’ debut appearance at the Asia Cup.

"Hockey5s is a complementary version of the outdoor game, and we would hope to create the same excitement and interest with this new version of the sport."

Hockey5s features two teams consisting of five players each - as opposed to the standard 11- and includes three 12-minute periods on a playing surface which is around half the size of a regulation hockey pitch.
It is meant to exhilarate younger audiences who may have grown tired of the traditional 11-a-side sport.

The comparisons with Twenty20 cricket, 3x3 basketball and rugby sevens were there from the start, but unlike those three big-hitting, high-scoring, fast-paced disciplines, hockey5s has yet to reach close to its full potential.

Since Twenty20 cricket made its international debut with a match between Australia and New Zealand in 2005, the discipline has taken the world by storm.

Launched in 2008, the 20-over Indian Premier League continues to reap huge financial rewards for cricket's superstars, with millionaires made at its player auction each year.

There have also been six editions of the men's World T20 - now being re-branded as a World Cup - which have drawn in massive crowds and worldwide interest.

Rugby sevens is now a fixture on the Olympic programme, having made its bow at Rio 2016, while 3x3basketball is poised to make a big first impression at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where it is due to debut.

According to the FIH’s website, the "guiding philosophy" of hockey 5s is its "adaptability for grassroots development".

But bosses at hockey’s worldwide governing body, including FIH President Narinder Batra - an International Olympic Committee member - have made no secret of their desire to push hockey5s to much greater heights at elite level.

With insidethegames revealing earlier this year that FIH lost more than CHF633,000 (£498,000/$702,000/€578,000) in 2019, more than doubling its 2018 deficit, the organisation needs something to turn its fortunes around.

The FIH predicts that the Women’s World Cup in 2022 and the Men’s World Cup in 2023 will generate around CHF7million (£5.5 million/$7.79 million/€6.39 million).

But the governing body has struggled to find a host for the men’s edition other than India, with the Asian nation set to stage the event for the third time in 13 years in 2023.

Australia clinched gold when hockey5s made its Youth Olympics debut in 2014 ©Getty Images
Australia clinched gold when hockey5s made its Youth Olympics debut in 2014 ©Getty Images

Speaking after the re-election of Batra as FIH President, Thierry Weil - the organisation’s chief executive - acknowledged the dearth of new World Cup locations for the 11-a-side tournament.

But Weil was quick to highlight the level of interest in the FIH Hockey5s World Cup, which is set for its inaugural edition in 2024, with 16 teams to play.

"We have only got a few countries bidding for the 11-a-side Hockey World Cups," said Weil.

"Therefore, you don’t have the choice and you are extremely thankful to have those good locations, like India, there.

"For the Hockey5s World Cup in 2024, we have a few countries interested who have never bid for any FIH event before.

"Hockey5s will give a lot of opportunities to hosting nations but you will also see a lot of teams which have never competed at a World Cup.

"That will give hockey5s more exposure.

"We will have three nations per continent - and that’s the first time ever.

"It’s clear to me that we have to start somewhere but the World Cup is where we can increase the number of participants to give more people access to the sport.

"You have smaller number of players and that will be much easier to manage.

"We have five nations that have submitted their bid for this Hockey 5s World Cup which are not the top European nations."

It was revealed by the FIH that India, Pakistan and Singapore had put forward their cases to stage the first-ever Hockey5s World Cup, but Oman emerged victorious.

FIH President Narinder Batra wants hockey5s to appear on the Olympic programme alongside traditional field hockey ©Getty Images
FIH President Narinder Batra wants hockey5s to appear on the Olympic programme alongside traditional field hockey ©Getty Images

Weil claims the format will play a "key role in the growth of hockey worldwide" as he also revealed work to create a Hockey5s World Tour which is set to be held across the global.

But the selection of Oman as the host nation has been met with a backlash.

Kate Richardson-Walsh, who captained Britain’s women’s team to Olympic gold at Rio 2016, said awarding the tournament to a country which criminalises homosexuality, with a possible prison sentence of up to three years, was "incomprehensible".

England Hockey also released a statement, saying the FIH’s decision had come as a "surprise" and threatened to potentially pull out of the event.

"If England were to qualify, the Board would reserve their right to not participate, subject to fully understanding how the FIH and the Omani authorities are working towards making the event inclusive for players, officials and fans alike," the statement read.

The FIH insisted Oman was "aware" of its stance on inclusion and diversity and vowed to ensure that everyone would be welcome to attend "no matter their ethnical background, gender, sexual orientation or religion".

"We will monitor this very closely with the Oman Hockey Association and the Omani authorities," the statement added.

Oman’s selection has proven controversial but the FIH appears driven to take the discipline to all corners of the globe with the overriding ambition to gain Olympic status.

"I would like to see hockey5s at the Olympics," Batra stated.

"The first step has been achieved having been part of the Youth Olympics.

"Now a lot of things have to be done to get it into the Olympics.

"It needs to be played across the four continents and you need a World Championships.

"We have started that process now.

"It takes place in countries that have never hosted them before and there will be a mixed event as well."

Field hockey has become an established Olympic sport since making its debut at London 1908 and is set to make its 24th appearance at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Weil admits there are fears among some National Federations that hockey5s could "damage" traditional field hockey, but he insists that will not be the case.

"When I joined the FIH in 2018 and I saw the hockey5s project, I was straight away convinced that this is something that we absolutely need to have," said Weil.

"I was told that this is actually a risk for 11 a-side hockey and potentially this could replace it at the Olympics.

"I went to the IOC and clearly asked the question whether hockey5s was a danger and the answer was clear that there is no danger about this.

"We have a lot of other sports that gave us the best examples where they have added short form versions of their sport to the longer formats.

"Hockey5s will just increase the visibility of hockey and allow countries that, most probably, have no chance of playing sooner rather than later in international competitions."

In September, Swiss city Lausanne, known as the Olympic Capital, is scheduled to stage the first-ever senior World Hockey5s event.

The two-day men’s and women’s event, featuring Switzerland, England, Germany, India, Malaysia and South Africa, is expected to offer an "exciting mix of competition, music entertainment and additional activities".

Suddenly, it feels like hockey5s - which made a somewhat discreet entrance in 2013 - is about to take centre stage for the FIH.