The Sahara Champions Challenge here in Alexandria today started off with the clash of the titans as Korea and Argentina, the two tournament favorites, sparred and split the honors. Feelings about this tie undoubtedly will be mixed: while the Argentines appear perfectly happy and satisfied with having managed to hold the higher ranked Koreans, their counterparts will not be quite as content with having given away a point after having been the if ever so slightly stronger side for much of the encounter.
Both teams displayed some very fine hockey in a disciplined game – only one green card to Korean defender Jong Bok Cha – and in weather conditions perfect for hockey at 22 degrees with a steady breeze and cloudless sky. The Argentines took the lead in the 20th minute but were overtaken by their opponents before halftime with a double strike from Jung Seon Lee in the 32nd and 34th minute. In the second half, Korea extended its lead to two goals, but just when the match seemed to be slipping away from them, Mario Almada and his teammates clenched their teeth and fought their way back into the game with Almada’s second goal of the match and Matias Vila’s equalizer.
In the following game, Belgian Jean-Philippe Brule won his 100th cap and made his own jubilee all the sweeter by contributing 2 goals to his team’s 5-1 defeat of South Africa. The two teams’ first match in this competition didn’t lack a certain controversy as their last meeting in Madrid little over a year ago left the Southafricans with a ticket to Athens and the Belgians devastated at having come so close only to have the opportunity to qualify for an Olympic hockey tournament wrenched from their hands by their opponents at the very last minute. Even if Athens is over and dealt with, this will feel like a piece of sweet revenge.
South Africa will need to recover fast from their less than optimal start into the event which was in part certainly due to the inexperience of their young team with a great number of faces new to top level international competition. They have already made a promising start on this, evidenced by the curious development of the game that saw all decisions made in the first half as Belgium built their 5-1 lead, while the second half ended 0-0 and was largely controlled by the Southafricans.
The final encounter of the day had Egypt meet with England. Despite their valiant attempts, the hosts in the end had to accept a 1-4 defeat, a result that is a little deceiving, not quite reflecting the Africans’ solid performance in facing one of the young teams in this event. England on the other hand brought forth a sufficient but rather uninspired performance and will have to step up their efforts if they intend to challenge Korea and Argentina. They already showed some development in this game, insecure in the beginning but getting stronger and more determined with the course of the match.
On a sidenote, Egypt’s first defeat already has sparked off rumors that the casualty of the tournament will again be Gerhard Rach whose contract ends on the last day of the tournament and is not to be renewed by the Egyptian Hockey Federation.
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