While David Harte is by a distance Ireland’s most high profile men’s hockey player, there is the distinct possibility he is far more recognised in India than on home soil.
The two-time world goalkeeper of the year is something of a cult figure in the country following four stints in the Hockey India League. And he will look to add to that status this week at the World Cup which gets underway on Friday with Ireland meeting tournament favourites Australia (11.30am, Irish time).David Harte with the other captains at Konark Temple. Pic: Hockey India[/caption]They do so with the majority of his team mates experiencing heavy media attention for the first time in a country where hockey is still counted as one of the national sports.
The side were greeted off the plane in Bhubaneswar by banks of photographers, camera crews and reporters and it happened again off the team bus.
For Harte, though, he is well used to the hero worship that comes with hockey after spending almost a year of his career in the country between World League Round 2 in 2013 and then his HIL experiences even if his toes curl at his own dedicated terrace chant: “Davey Boy, the Harte of Mumbai, he stands up tall, just like a wall”.
“It was cringe-worthy stuff but also nice to get that appreciation. Stepping off team buses and seeing the volume of cameras in your face, the live audience and all that is a bit unnerving but you do get used to it,” Harte told the Irish Independent ahead of the competition.
His green machine team enjoyed a spectacular opening ceremony on Tuesday, reportedly costing the local Odisha government $14m, while Wednesday’s first day of matches saw a sold-out crowd of 15,000 at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.
Harte said it is a real cauldron: “Bhubaneswar was one of the only Hockey India League stadiums which was sold out for every single match.
“You had people trying to sneak in – they are hockey-mad despite it being more rural than Mumbai or Delhi. It was the first time I played in a place where you simply couldn’t communicate with your defenders!
“In my second, third and fourth year, I developed to levels I probably never imagined possible. I owe an awful lot to the country.
— Hockey World Cup 2018 – Host Partner (@sports_odisha) November 28, 2018
“It is chaotic but it all works, somehow or some way! The road system, the low hanging electricity wires, the mass of people in such small spaces.
“It is an assault on your senses with the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the views. You can read about it but you have to live there to really experience it!”
And experience it he will following a tumultuous preparation in which he was initially likely to be ruled out through a fractured fibula only for a second opinion just severe bruising.
It means he can take his place in what will be Ireland’s first World Cup appearance since 1990 but the target is a top-eight finish at the least.
After Australia, they will play more inviting group games against England and China with the top side going into the quarter-finals while second and third go into a crossover game.
Ireland have never drawn against the Aussies in nine previous games and so the focus is likely to be on containment.
The side is in full health with Eugene Magee able to play despite two broken fingers sustained earlier in the week. Ireland beat Pakistan 1-0 in their last warm-up challenge match at the tournament venue.
Off the field, Harte was recently co-opted onto the FIH’s athlete commission, a role he also does with the Olympic Federation of Ireland, being charged with giving a voice to the athletes to the governing bodies.
“Having been 12, going on 13 years, and 200 caps played, you see an awful lot of how hockey is going from a governance side of things.
“Playing in the Hockey India League, the Malaysia league, it doesn’t always favour the players the best. The powers that be recognise that we are the greatest resources in the hockey world and, at times, they are not treated as they should be.
“I am on the FIH’s athletes commission and the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s commission on the back of Rio.
— Hockey World Cup 2018 – Host Partner (@sports_odisha) November 25, 2018
“I have already voiced my opinions that athletes should never be treated the same way again. Instead of being a hurler on the ditch, I have an opportunity to go and do something about it and it’s a great opportunity.”
He is in an interesting situation as one of hockey’s most high profile players not to be taking part in the FIH Pro League. As such, he recognises the impact it can have and says it is an issue he will raise when the FIH athletes commission meets.
“The Pro League doesn’t make sense to me and I am pretty curious about how it is all going to unfold. The FIH’s choices of teams to be selected and others not to be and now the debacle of Pakistan not playing their matches in their chosen city [Glasgow] – the governing body has a lot to answer for and I am hoping that will be one of my main tasks.
“The idea that precious world ranking points are only up for grabs for these nine teams for the next four years – no relegation, no promotion – it’s an absolute farce.”