The second Worldhockey Men’s Olympic Qualifier starts in Santiago, Chile on Saturday with 6 teams fighting for a single ticket for the Olympic Games next summer in Beijing, China.
While Great Britain and India are the overwhelming favorites to reach the winner-take-all Final next Sunday, host Chile have prepared well for this event and could create some surprises.
Austria, Chile, Great Britain, India, Mexico and Russia will try to join the nine teams already qualified through the Continental Championships last summer, plus New Zealand, who wrestled the qualification out of the hand of Argentina with a dramatic Golden Goal (in the final seconds of overtime) in the first Olympic Qualifier in Auckland.
Great Britain is the top ranked team in this competition (8th in the WorldHockey Rankings) but only a few points ahead of India (ranked 9th). The two teams have a long and illustrious history at the Olympic Games: India have participated in every Games since their debut in 1928 in Amsterdam, gathering an impressive collection of honors, including 8 Gold Medals and an uninterrupted series of six victories between 1928 and 1956; Great Britain have participated in 15 Olympic Games, collecting 3 Gold, 1 Silver and 2 Bronze Medals.
The two teams have been out of the pack of leading hockey nations for a while now (the last Olympic medal for Great Britain was in 1988 in Seoul, the last one for India was 8 years before in Moscow), and are battling hard to become contenders again. Great Britain seem on the right path, with an impressive 5th place at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, while India had a very disappointing 11th place finish.
Despite the large gap in the final standings at this 2006 World Cup, England only beat India by a narrow margin (3-2). In that game, goals were score by Simon Mantell (2), James Tindall, Shiwendar Singh and Dilip Tirkey, who will all be playing in Santiago, where Dilip Tirkey will try to win a trip to his 4th Olympic Games!
Great Britain have an homogenously experienced roster, while India have a wide mix of experienced campaigners (363 Caps for Dilip Tirkey!) and young players emerging on the international scene, such as Diwakar Ram, the youngest player in the competition at 18 but already hailed as a promising drag flicker.
After 6 days of competition, with the ruthless new format of the Olympic Qualifier, at least one of these two teams that have made Olympic hockey history will go home empty handed…
Chile is the next team in the WorldHockey rankings (20th). The Chilean Hockey Federation is very active, regularly organizing Pan American and FIH competitions, and their National Teams have become a force in the Pan American region. They finished 3rd at the last Pan American Games, offering tough opposition to both Canada and Argentina with a strong and cohesive unit led by talented players such as their Captain Felipe Montegu. Although they might be a long shot for the final qualification, they are certainly capable of upsetting one of the two top teams on a good day.
Austria have not participated in an outdoor world level event in a while, and are rather unknown at that level. Nevertheless, their world ranking of 25th and their strong showings on the indoor international scene are indications that they could be a difficult opposition and should certainly not be taken lightly.
Mexico were originally a reserve country in the Olympic Qualification process, but were called early into action after the surprise withdrawal of Egypt (ranked 18th in the World and participants in the 2004 Games in Athens). The Mexican have embraced the opportunity, lining up a young team in the continuity of their brilliant 3rd place at the 2005 Junior Pan American Championships that qualified them for the last Junior World Cup. Interestingly, they are led by two women coaches, a situation fairly unique at this level of men’s international hockey.
Russia was added only lately to the panel of competitors after the withdrawal of Bangladesh. They have fallen very low in the World Rankings (45th) since their last Olympic participation (1992 in Barcelona) but, like Austria, arrive with a strong baggage of indoor experience and hoping to transfer it to the larger field.
Action starts on Saturday at the Prince of Wales Country Club in Santiago, on a superb new pitch. Opening day should in theory be smooth for the two favorites, Great Britain against Mexico and India against Russia, while the last game of the day will give a good indication of the potential of the Chilean and Austrian teams.
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