The men’s team’s emphatic title victory at the inaugural Hockey 5s tournament capped off an exciting experience for India. While the women’s team failed to reach the final, the men quickly adapted to find success in their first proper foray into the five-a-side format.
On a broader level, the two-day tournament in Lausanne created a lot of buzz in the hockey world. The new format is being touted as the future of hockey — a way of spreading the game around the world.
“What I particularly enjoyed was the fact that people having a walk… stopped, looked at what was going on and eventually decided to move into the stadium and watch the games. This was exactly the purpose of this event: bringing hockey to people,” FIH CEO Thierry Weil said.
“Then of course the huge enthusiasm of the players to play this format — for some of them for the first time — as well as the intensity of the matches were a blessing,” he added.
FIH first competitively introduced the format in the run-up to the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympic Games. India’s first proper experience in the format came at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, where the boys’ team ended up winning the silver medal.
But the tournament in Lausanne was FIH’s first official senior tournament in the format. The “success” of the event has inspired FIH to start a Hockey5s World Cup, with the first edition likely to be held in 2024.
Despite FIH’s recent interest in the smaller format, the concept of reducing the scale is not new in competitive hockey. Indoor hockey, which is a highly popular variant in Europe, began in the 1950s. First started as a pastime during the Northern Europe winters, when conditions are unsuitable for playing outdoors, the format quickly grew in popularity. Many nations, including Germany, have established national indoor leagues. The first Indoor World Cup was played in 2003.
Simple and adaptable
While a source of inspiration for Hockey5s — the most obvious aspect being the use of sideboards — indoor hockey is not a direct predecessor for the new format. Apart from certain differences in rules — indoor hockey is a six-a-side format and hitting the ball is not allowed — the essence of the two formats does not match.
Indoor hockey is more exclusive and expensive — it’s played on a hard surface, either wooden or synthetic, and there is no intention of simplifying the rules. On the other hand, FIH’s main reason to popularise Hockey5s is to attract more nations towards the game.
Taking a minimalistic approach, the rules and the field design have been simplified and are open to change (for tournaments other than the World Cup, Youth Olympic Games and their qualification tournaments) to make the format more adaptable to different surfaces and environments. Hitting and slapping the ball is allowed just as in 11-a-side hockey, but unlike the bigger format, a goal can be scored from anywhere in the attacking half.
“Hockey5s is a great lever to boost the growth of hockey at the global level,” Weil said. “Thanks to its less restrictive infrastructure, the practice of Hockey5s can be a real development asset for many nations in the world. In addition, the size of the field also makes it possible to anchor the Hockey5s in the heart of cities, giving it an urban dimension that is very fashionable and attractive, especially among young people. Finally, Hockey5s is an excellent springboard, a gateway, to 11-a-side hockey,” he added.
Furthermore, the familiarity with a shorter format among players at different levels and age groups works in the favor of Hockey5s. “Scaling down the field and number of players is a common method for helping kids understand more complex ideas of the game,” said Yudhwinder Singh, coach of the Punjab boys’ hockey team that won gold at the ongoing Khelo India Youth Games.
“It is also the favorite pastime for hockey players. Depending on the number of players present, you can play two-a-side, three-a-side or six-a-side,” he added.
It is easy to understand the format’s appeal, especially for developing nations. For the cost of installing one full-sized synthetic turf, five to six five-a-side fields can be prepared. “This can encourage administrators to install more synthetic turfs, even if smaller ones. It is anyway enough for a young trainee,” Yudhwinder said.
The format would also enable smaller teams to be competitive against the traditional powerhouses, as shown by Poland (men’s finalists) and Uruguay (women’s champions) in Lausanne.
Though the format lacks the complexity of the bigger version, the smaller field and fewer stoppages due to the sideboards mean there are no dull moments. The fast-paced, end-to-end action makes it more entertaining for the spectators. Despite its relative simplicity, the format has its own nuances, like shooting from a distance or using the sideboards for deflecting passes on to teammates.
“It was a new experience, the matches were really fast-paced, but we improved match-by-match and got to score a lot of goals,” young Indian forward Mohammed Raheel said.
“We started using the perimeter boards more, and with that our finishing improved. It’s a great feeling to play for India. I really loved playing this format,” added Raheel, who finished as the tournament’s top-scorer.
Staying relevant for the modern spectator is one of the major concerns for most sports federations. Hockey is not the first sport to try new formats for spreading the appeal of the game. Football’s five-a-side version is highly popular around the world. Basketball’s three-a-side version was included at the Tokyo Olympics. Seven-a-side rugby was included in the Olympics in 2016.