Why India are back in Pro League next year, but the women have to wait

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The International Hockey Federation (FIH) announced on Tuesday that India will be a part of the Pro League from the 2020 season onwards.

However, only the men's team makes the roster for next year, effectively replacing Pakistan, who withdrew from the first edition in January 2019, and had a fine worth 150,000 euros (approx. 2.5 crore Pakistan rupees) imposed on them on Monday.

What is the Pro League, and why was it planned?

The Pro League is a home-and-away league played over six months that began this January. India, among the original nine teams in both the men's and women's section, withdrew soon after the announcement of the league, citing confusion about how Pro League participation could impact their chances of qualification for the 2020 Olympics, and how it could impact world rankings. Spain (men) and Belgium (women) had originally stepped in for India.

Replacing the erstwhile World League, the top-four finishers in Pro League 2019 will get a direct entry into the Olympic qualifiers. Similarly, top places in the league in following seasons will help teams get spots in the World Cup qualifications, and then again for the 2024 Olympics.

This is good for India, surely?

The big sufferers of the decision were the Indian women's team, who were robbed of a chance at an Olympic berth as well as playing quality opposition on a regular basis -- the lack of quality match practice could tell if they make it to Tokyo. In 2019, the only internationals that Rani Rampal and her team have played include matches against Ireland and Spain on a tour of Spain in January-February, and a bilateral five-match tour of lower-ranked Malaysia earlier this month.

ESPN understands with the women's competition already played among nine teams, FIH were not keen to accommodate the Indian women's team for the 2020 season. Hockey India (HI) though have expressed a willingness to enter their women's team as soon as a spot opens up, according to the global body.

The men's team, however, will benefit from a six-month engagement with the top teams of the world. In fact, this could serve as the best possible way for the Indian team to warm up for the Olympics in Tokyo in August, provided they book their place at the Games later this year through the Series finals in Bhubaneswar and the qualifiers that will follow.

But what made India's stance change now?

While the quality of competition has been high -- world champions Belgium lead Australia and Great Britain in the men's section, while Netherlands and Argentina are very close among the women -- commercial concerns plagued the league even before a game was played. The long travel between venues, teams expected to fund their travels themselves, and finding a suitable calendar to accommodate European club hockey were the main issues.

In December 2017, then FIH CEO Jason McCracken had suggested that India could find themselves included as early as the first season itself. India continue to be one of the big drivers of sponsorship and television revenue in the global game -- the Hero group being one of the biggest global sponsors -- and that made their entry into the Pro League inevitable. India also warmed up to the idea of playing the Pro League once it emerged that it would merely guarantee a place in the qualifiers, and not in the Olympics per se.

What is the other change proposed?

The key change in the format from 2020 will be to have the home-and-away format done away with for one year. For instance, if India are to play home-and-away against Germany, they will play Germany twice at home in the span of two days in 2020, and play the two return fixtures away in Germany in 2021. This call has been taken to reduce the travel for teams by half, thus saving on expenses and giving the teams greater rest between games.