The 12th hockey World Cup goes on stage on Sunday amidst unimaginable security, organisational glitches and misgivings about the Indian team's performance.
“It is like a circus,” commented an exasperated official of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) on Friday. Compelled as he was to literally run from pillar to post not knowing who is responsible for what, with too many power centres hovering, he nevertheless was optimistic that the hockey on view would be soothing to the nerves.
There is more anguish than anger in the higher echelons of the FIH over the necessity to conduct the greatest show in the sport ringed by layers of armed, machine gun-toting security personnel. This is an enduring curse of modern sport. Hockey is no exception.
Decipher the final configuration of the contestants can be a fascinating exercise. But it is nerve-wracking. For the lucky 19,000-odd spectators who will throng the Dhyan Chand Stadium, it is bound to be a fiesta. On display will be the styles, systems and sophistication of the best from the five continents, each team endowed with something special.
It will be a classic understatement to say the focus on Sunday will be on the Pool B India-Pakistan match. Never has there ever been a dull moment when these two teams clashed, raising passions among millions not only in the sub-continent but also among viewers across the globe.
For those statistically minded, the teams have met 142 times with India winning 44, losing 74 and drawing 24. In the World Cup since 1971, the record is equal, each winning two of the four.
Predicting the outcome of an India-Pakistan combat is akin to forecasting the weather. Both are capable of elevating the spectacle to an aesthetic sense of delight. What India's Spanish coach, Jose Brasa, has up his sleeve to stun Pakistan is, understandably, under wraps.
There is a noticeable optimism among players headed by Rajpal Singh. The observations of striker Prabhjot Singh a few days ago were reassuring. Motivation is the key. The team is alive to that. With an experienced attack, an expert midfield and a well-drilled defensive phalanx can give India some advantage.
Sandeep Singh is the trump card. The lissome drag-flicker, who missed the last World Cup owing to an unfortunate shooting accident while travelling to Delhi, is bound to be the cynosure.
Pakistan is high on confidence after the return of Sohail Abbas. His contribution to the team qualifying for the World Cup from Lille (France) was immense. The frontline containing Rehan Butt and Shakeel Abbasi makes the job of the defenders definitely tough.
Taking a more panoramic view of the event, Australia has earned the tag as the team to watch out for, being well prepared to regain the World Cup it last won in 1986 in Willesden. Guided by the inimitable Ric Charlesworth, who was part of that 1986 squad, the Aussies have performed incredibly this year, concluding it with a Champions Trophy triumph.
In Jaime Dwyer, they have an accomplished star. Ace shooter Grant Schubert and drag-flicker Luke Doerner form the next striking force. The estimate that Australia might head Pool B does not seem exaggerated.
Then we have Spain and England. These two are excellent combinations that are yet to strike gold. The Spaniards offer a style that synthesises power with artistry. Veteran Pablo Amat and the ebullient Eduard Taubau symbolise this.
England has acquired a lot of mileage in the media with the memorable win in the European Championships. It may miss the injured Matt Daly in attack, but strikers like Richard Mantel, Ashley Jackson and the hard-working Barry Middleton can give any team a tough time.
Germany is striving for a hat-trick. But without star striker Christopher Zeller, who stayed back to complete his law examinations, the all-round competence of a newly-built side has diminished a bit. Matthias Witthaus has the best credentials with over 300 caps.
The defending champion has to contend with traditional rival The Netherlands in Pool B. Led by the old war horse, Teun di Nooijer, who is figuring in his fourth World Cup, the Dutchmen are fighting to re-establish their supremacy.
Korea, the Asian champion, is another spoiler. Yet to get a medal despite reaching the semifinals in the last two editions, its claims for one this time around cannot be brushed aside.
While the most improved performer is New Zealand, under the skilful Ryan Archibald, and poses danger to everyone, the most unpredictable in Pool B is Argentina. It may not have a star in the calibre of Jorge Lombi, but players like Mario Almada and Padro Ibarra are no less dangerous.
In the-show-must-go-on ambience, fans have no option but to fasten their seat belts and get ready for what unfolds in the next fortnight.
The pools: Pool A: Argentina, Canada, Germany, Korea, The Netherlands, New Zealand. Pool B: Australia, England, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain.
Sunday's matches: Spain vs. South Africa (4.35 p.m.); Australia vs. England (6.35 p.m.); India vs. Pakistan (8.35 p.m.).