Just before the start of the European Championships in August we will know the new president for the EHF, the European Hockey Federation. Either Peter Elders, a former umpire from The Netherlands or Marcos Hofmann, the president for Club Junior in Spain. On August 18 we will know who follows in the footsteps of Marijke Fleuren (NED) as president for the EHF and therefore member of the executive board of the FIH. Simply put, it’s a choice between a diplomat and an entrepreneur. But reducing these men to these terms would do them no justice, nor would it be fair. So let’s look beyond the sloganesk and talk in depth about both options.
We spoke with both presidential candidates in the first week of July and have released the full interviews as (video) podcasts on Spotify, YouTube, as well as the usual podcast channels like Apple, Google and more… Or you could watch these in full here ↓🙂
Peter Elders (00:35:30)
Marcos Hofmann (01:19:31)
No time to listen to this ↑ in full? Or want to know some of my opinions on what we talked about? Read on….
So why describe them as a diplomat and entrepreneur?
Both men are quite different from each other. Even though they also share a lot of the typical superficial characteristics of those that played and managed our sport for decades: white, privileged, family men…
While Peter Elders, who by the way I consider to be the diplomat in this comparison, is a typical product of the Dutch. When faced with a problem the go to reflex is… let’s talk, find mutual grounds and reach a compromise:
We have been fighting the FIH for the last six or eight years. And frankly, we did never win one of those fights. And it has troubled our relation and I think that’s should be one of the key items. Because I think Europe should be strong and a strong Europe should be part of the FIH. To make hockey stronger in the world. So join them, not fight them.Peter Elders
Elders is a true grassroots player until the age of 18, before picking up the whistle. Which brought him to all major international events, umpiring at the European Championships, World Cups and the Olympics. Before becoming the volunteer board member at his club, the EHF and the FIH. Usually active in rules committees.
Marcos Hofmann on the other hand has a different response. He described it himself as the bar attitude:
My attitude in life is like, instead of complaining, you just try and fix it. I call it the bar attitude. You see a target, say hold my beer and there you go…Marcos Hofmann
At the age of 24, a fanatic player himself, he decided to prioritise his career in banking when the national team proved to be out of reach. When, after some time abroad, he returned to Barcelona to manage the family business, he considered a coaching challenge. But with his business background he gravitated towards management and administration. Today he is the president of Club Junior, near Barcelona.
The difference in characters doesn’t mean Elders can’t be entrepreneurial, nor that Hofmann could not be a diplomat when need be. Make your own call from the interviews above. Or read on, knowing in this column it’s about the combo of their answers and my opinions. So that’s why…
About the EHF
When asked abut the reason for existence of something like the EHF both first have a somewhat similar answer. Where Hofmann compares the federations to governments stating you need different levels in government from (inter)national to regional and local. Because in order to serve your people, the closer you are to them, the better you can serve them. And Elders points out because as a group we are stronger than individuals. And the EHF needs to be the voice, the coach and the consultant to its national associations (NA’s).
Both agree Europe, especially under its current president Marijke Fleuren, has been the front runner globally in gender balance and inclusion. Which is something to cherish and continue…
Hofmann added a fact few of us knew or realised I’m sure. The fact that we are also the global powerhouse in organising tournaments. Europe hosts more competitive events every year than all other continental federations, including the FIH itself put together. This is not counting the thousands and thousands of official games being played every week by men and women between the ages of 6 and 66 (or older) in organised leagues and tournaments by the NA’s that make up the EHF. This incredible portfolio of tournaments managed by the EHF and its NA’s makes all can play at their level, recreational or competitive. And if as a country you have ambitions, within 3 to 4 years a talented generation could rise to the top. Also something to cherish and continue…
Elders is more a federation man and Hofmann probably more club focussed. For Elders the EHF clearly is a matter of serving the nations while keeping an eye on the clubs as well of course. Hofmann, today still a club president in Spain, agrees the EHF is “a club of NA’s” but recognises the clubs are what differentiates Europe from the other continents and FIH. Half of the portfolio of the EHF events are club based. But he recognises perhaps more that clubs need to be considered more in the challenges they face from international calendars and the focus on national teams.
Development is something different in different countries
Sport and hockey have a very different “reason for being” around the world. If we exaggerate a bit you could say in the US it’s all about getting scholarships to pay for an education or (for other sports) about the entertainment industry. In Commonwealth countries like England you could say it’s more about just one of the courses you have to follow in school, like math, or geography,… In Asia, countries like India or Pakistan, it’s all about the money you can earn. If someone is paying, people will play hockey. If there is no money, they will not play. While in our parts of western Europe it’s about recreation, it’s a part of the education of our children and a choice for a healthy lifestyle. It’s where we come together with family and friends.
All sports administrators, all over the world, will claim development of the game is the most important item on the agenda for them. But what is meant by development is very different for them. My guess (let’s make it clear this not the view necessarily of either Elders or Hofmann) is from 140 countries affiliated to the FIH, over 100 nations are in it just to have a NA with some people employed, a small group of athletes that from time to time play something international so government funding and IOC funding kicks in and provides a job to the people employed in their NA. Or it’s used as a stepping stone into their national Olympic association. Some 40 NA’s sincerely want to grow to number of players and some 20 have a workable active hockey population. In Europe we have some 40 NA’s affiliated to the EHF. And while we might do better than the numbers sketched above for the FIH, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Europe either. A major challenge for any sports governing body in hockey is how to grow the number of players. Which for us represents true development.
Both candidates agree focussing on growing through first growing the fanbase, as promoted by the FIH, will not be the road to success. Elders thinks the solution is not so complicated. For him it would be enough to make sure NA’s are run by people from the hockey community to make sure their love for the sports does the rest. He thinks different formats of hockey have a role to play. From our traditional 11v11 over indoor hockey to 5s.
Hofmann elaborated a bit more in his answer here. Also stating hockey might never be the spectator sport some would like us to become. Because it’s a small ball, a big field and a true team sport, where the team dynamics play a bigger role than in other “similar” stick & ball sports where it’s just one player at a time swinging a stick at the ball. This makes it a tough sport to follow for the non-initiated, the general sports fan if you will. So we have to focus on growing the base of the pyramid (or Christmas tree according to Elders). But when your numbers are so insignificant (some countries have less players than the U14 girls section of the club from Hofmann) it’s not easy. Each country will need a tailor made approach. Just providing a second-hand pitch and sending over some sticks and balls will not really make a difference. Also pushing our own club model on countries with a different culture will not solve anything either. So we should stop preaching our beliefs and models onto others, inside and outside of Europe. We should listen to how they want to solve it themselves and assist their plans where possible. Prove a reasonable pathway to the top of our sport for the competitive teams. The EHF already is doing very good work with their portfolio of events is the opinion of Hofmann. So help them create the infrastructure and find the means to help these countries believe sincerely they too can make it happen…
Is 5s a threat or the solution?
For me, again not speaking for any of the candidates here, 5s is the biggest threat to our sport. It’s something artificial that was created in the hopes of not losing the generation with a shorter attention span and less fond of a commitment. I’ve called it Frankenstein’s monster before because I do believe, like in the story, the monster will come back to kill it’s creator.
One of the few smart ideas that were communicated by FIH in recent years has been the decision to (once again) allow for hockey to be played on any surface. If a water-based artificial grass pitch is not an option, play on natural grass, concrete, clay, whatever…
What should have been added for me is… Play on a full sized pitch or a smaller field. Play 11v11 or 8v8 or 6v6 or 3v3 or whatever… Play the game in whatever shape or form. Whatever it takes from a development point of view to grow the number of people actually playing the sport… let’s make that happen. That’s what development is about. However topsport is by nature elitist and merit based. And it needs consistent infrastructure and set of rules to make it a level playing field and ensure a fair competition. So use 5s or 3v3 or whatever format you like for development and exhibition events to give people a taste of hockey. But when you make it a competing competitive format you put our 11v11 game at risk. And that is the opposite of what our federation should do for our sport. Anyway… that’s my view on things.
Peter Elders says he was in the room when 5s was invented and the rules had to be made. According to him it was meant to be a very flexible form to help development and showcase hockey in unusual places. When IOC however told FIH it wanted them to bring fewer athletes to the Youth Olympic Games it became something more than just a development format. However Elders disagrees with me and does not consider 5s a risk. He believes, even though hockey’s Olympic future was at risk some 10 years ago, it’s not at risk anymore. He believes our 11v11 format is secure for at least the next 3 Olympic Games. He also thinks a strong EHF will have enough power within FIH to protect our game.
I think we have lost too much influence in the FIH to make that claim…
Marcos Hofmann sees 5s a bit more as a threat to our sport. He states hockey 5s lacks the history and playerbase of other short formats in other sports. Making it a competitive format instead of an exhibition and development tool, it became a burden on an already crowded international calendar and the NA budgets. Now the EHF has to create qualifying events for 5s. While it could have served very well as an exhibition event such as the exciting event the FIH organised in the port of Lausanne in 2022. Now there’s talk of doing an exhibition event with 5s at the pyramids in Egypt. In that capacity it could serve a purpose. Hofmann however thinks it should not be the governing bodies that organise these kinds of events. He thinks they should focus on their core tasks and leave these kind of events to commercial partners to deal with.
According to me, the mid tier and lower tier countries now think they have an easier route to a world cup (and who know the Games maybe). And this would make it easier to get more funds from their government to run their NA. However what they fail to take into account is, when 5s becomes a recognised format, the established tier 1 hockey nations will most likely take control and take their spot in the international events again. Because plain and simple, they have the numbers that make it a lot easier to field a stronger team, should they choose to focus on 5s as well.
Hofmann recognises the EHF has lost a lot of “power” in the FIH. But he still thinks the voice of the EHF, when push comes to shove, carries a lot of weight in the FIH. And it should be enough to prevent 5s taking the place of 11v11 at the Games.
What changes will be acceptable in the move to dry turf
The FIH has told all concerned, without much concertation many add, the deadline for a non-irrigated artificial pitch (or dry turf) will be the World cup to be hosted in Belgium and the Netherlands in the summer of 2026. While I think there’s not a soul in the world who does not recognise the need for a move to using less (and if possible no) water as a resource. The short deadline does raise some eyebrows.
As we speak (July 2023) there is no technical solution that would allow for our game to be played the same way as on the current water-based artificial grass pitches. Polytan, the turf manufacturer partnered to FIH, has no full size non-irrigated pitch anywhere in the world for testing just yet. Tencate Grass, the turf manufacturer partnered to the Dutch NA, has 1 full size dry turf available for testing. But so far the player’s reactions are that it would be impossible to play our game on it without making huge sacrifices.
For the 2026 World Cup to be played on dry turf, the FIH would need to be playing all of their Pro League games on a dry turf starting at the 2024-2025 season at the latest. Not very likely without the game changing significantly.
However both candidates for the EHF presidency state they are OK with changes to our sport for this to happen before the 2026 world cup. Neither of them however goes into detail much about what would be acceptable and what not. Nor did the president and CEO of FIH when I asked them the same question in a press meet during the last Pro League. All sports administrators seem to agree if they are flexible in their deadline for this the R&D departments, these will slow down. In my eyes a shortsighted attitude by them.
Will we adapt to new circumstances? Sure, humans always do. But our sport will be the poorer for it!
What about the EHL?
Instead of taking away from the sport, the EHL has brought us many improvements. The self-pass rule to name but one… But will it have a future? Its threats are the full international calendar and decreasing financial support from sponsors.
Elders agrees with the financial threat. But the solution to the financial pressure so far is the same as to the dry turf coming our way… Just live with it and adapt.
It’s always a tense relation. The times of , give me your money and I’ll decide what to do with it are over. So that’s the new life…Peter Elders
Hoffman elaborates a bit more… but has no real answer today either.
Lately the EHL gas sort of been stagnating. That is why there was an attempt to revamp the competition. To change the format, to bring in new capital.Marcos Hofmann
Hofmann continues he noticed there were two opinions. One to stretch the format and keep a round in October and Easter. Another to have it more concentrated and only at Easter. Maybe for more days than just the prolonged Easter weekend. Have some extra events around the main one like more youth or masters events at the same time and location. To concentrate resources and save some money that way to keep it going. But to make that choice there needs to be some more time to have real business driven talks about this instead of talks alongside the hockey field.
Why choose you for the next EHF president?
The final question for both was to describe why they should be the next president for the EHF. Instead of me sharing my opinions here I thought it would be more fair to the both of them to let them do the talking without my opinionated sauce on top of it. And it might even be better not to limit it to their answer to this specific question. Listen (watch) the full conversation above or as a podcast on Spotify or the regular podcast channels.
So there you go… by the time the European Championship will have started we will know who was chosen by the European national associations to be their next president. Whoever it will be they will have some serious challenges ahead of them defending the European ways in the FIH to name but one.