The last Worldhockey Women’s Olympic Qualifier starts on Saturday in Victoria, Canada, with 6 teams fighting for a single ticket for the Olympic Games next summer in Beijing. Host Canada, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Malaysia and Uruguay will try to join the nine teams already qualified through the Continental Championships last summer, plus Spain, winner of the first Olympic Qualifier in Azerbaijan, and the winner of the second Olympic Qualifier that will conclude this weekend in Kazan, Russia.
Korea are the logical favorites but will face a strong challenge from a well prepared Irish team eager to book their first ever trip to an Olympic Games.
Korea are the top ranked team in this competition (9th in the WorldHockey Rankings) and have participated in every Olympic Games and World Cup since their emergence on the world scene in 1988, collecting two Olympic Silver medals (1988 and 1996) and one World Cup Bronze Medal (1990). They have slightly slipped away from a podium result in the last ten years, but can still boast more high-level international experience than any other team in Victoria.
Since their modest 9th place at the 2006 World Cup in Madrid, they have changed their coach and modified half of their roster, but can still count on a solid core of seasoned veterans, starting with goalkeeper and captain Ju Young LIM who, along with Jin Kyoung KIM, Jeong Sook PARK and Seon Ok LEE, have the accumulated experience of two World Cups and one Olympic Games. They will also rely on Mi Hyun PARK, the young and talented midfielder who made her debut at the Olympic Games in Athens and has since been named FIH Young Player of the Year (2006) and selected to the WorldHockey All Star Team in 2006 and 2007.
Their closest opponent in the World Rankings is Ireland (14th). The Irish have so far only achieved modest appearances on the world stage (1986, 1994 and 2002 World Cups) but seem to have boosted their ambitions since the arrival of Gene Muller as coach. After a very credible 6th place at the 2007 European Championship in Manchester, they went through an extensive preparation before this Olympic Qualifier, playing numerous games against higher ranked opponents such as Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, China and Great Britain. Even though the results of these games were seldom in their favor, it has certainly accustomed the players to the intensity and rigor of high-level competition.
Although discreet on the world stage (no World Cup participation in the last 30 years), Italy manage to stay in the top-20 in the World Rankings and finished 7th at the 2007 European Championship in Manchester, just behind Ireland. The two teams were in the same pool in Manchester and had similar results against their common opponents (losses against the Netherlands and England, draw against Azerbaijan and win over Ukraine) but Ireland won cleanly their direct confrontation (3-0), possibly an indication of what could happen here in Victoria since the two teams have only made minimal changes to their rosters.
Host Canada is the next team in the WorldHockey rankings (23rd). Since their glory days of the 1980s, when they won back-to-back medals at the 1983 and 1986 World Cups, the Canadian team has slipped down the rankings ladder, with a last appearance in a world level event at the 1994 World Cup in Dublin (10th out of 12 teams). They are even struggling in the Pan American region, pushed off the podium for the first time at the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo by Uruguay, a team they will meet again in this Olympic Qualifier.
Canada suffer from a lack of regular exposure to international competition. They have a steady defense, anchored by veteran goalkeeper Sarah FORBES (who started her international career at the 1994 World Cup), but the team has trouble raising their game to the level of creativity and intensity required in international competition. Nevertheless, British Columbia is a stronghold of hockey in Canada: 12 out of 18 players in the Canadian roster come from this province and they will count on the support of the local crowd to help them play to their full potential and possibly create some surprises during the week.
Unlike their male counterparts, the Malaysian women have seldom participated in a world level event, and are rather unknown at this level. Nevertheless, their world ranking of 24th (one spot behind Canada) and their strong performance at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne (with a win over South Africa) are indications that they could be a difficult opposition and should certainly not be taken lightly.
Uruguay were originally a reserve country in the Olympic Qualification process, but were called into action after the withdrawal of Cuba. After surging onto the Pan American scene a few years ago, with a Bronze Medal at the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo and a forth place at the Pan American Cup the following year, Uruguay had poor results at the recent Pan American Games in Rio, losing heavily to Argentina (0-6), Chile (6-0) and Canada (0-3), and only managed winning against the inexperienced host Brazil.
Action starts on Saturday at the University of Victoria. Korea will open the competition against Uruguay, Italy will face host Canada, then the last game of the day will give an indication of the potential of Ireland when they confront Malaysia. At the end of the round robin, played throughout the week, the top two teams will square off on Sunday 4 May in the winner-take-all Final for the coveted ticket to Beijing.
Live commentaries will be available on the special event micro site during the entire competition, as well as reports, official match sheets, pictures, audio clips, etc. For direct access to this micro site, please click here.
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