The BDO Men’s Champions Challenge 1 starts on Sunday in the northern Argentinean city of Salta with 8 teams ranked from 7th to 15th in the world.
This competition was created by the FIH in 2001 and features the 8 teams just behind the elite top six currently involved in the Champions Trophy in Melbourne. It is organized every two years, with the winner of each edition qualified for the Champions Trophy the following year: the winner of the 2009 Champions Challenge in Salta will be qualified for the 2010 Champions Trophy, in Monchengladbach, Germany.
Six of the eight teams competing in Salta are also qualified for the Hero Honda FIH World Cup 2010 in Delhi: India (host), Canada and South Africa (Continental Cup winners), and Argentina, New Zealand and Pakistan (winners of the World Cup Qualifiers recently completed).
Pakistan are the top ranked team in this competition (7th in the FIH World Rankings). They will rely on the speed and technical skills of their forwards (Rehan BUTT, Shakeel ABBASSI), on the experience of their midfield and defense (Waseem AHMED, Zeeshan ASHRAF, Salman AKBAR in goal) and of course on the lethal flick of Sohail ABBAS on penalty-corners.
They have slid away from the international podiums lately and had to battle hard to be considered a top contender again. In Beijing, they produced a lacklustre performance, finishing only 8th, and they lost the final of the recent Asia Cup to Korea. At the World Cup Qualifier in Lille, they suffered when opponents managed to raise the tempo of play (especially Japan in the final) and were fortunate to benefit from Abbas’ nine penalty-corner goals to stay ahead of the competition.
Next in the FIH World Rankings is New Zealand (8th). They just won the World Cup Qualifier at home in Invercargill, where they had to fight hard in the final against a surprising Malaysian team. Two late penalty corners by Andrew HAYWARD (top scorer of the competition with 7 penalty-corners) made the difference.
In Salta, the Black Sticks will only miss the SHAW brothers (Hayden and Bradley) from their Qualifier squad, and have openly claimed that their goal is to win promotion to the Champions Trophy next year.
Belgium (9th in the World Rankings) suffered a heart-breaking loss to Argentina in the Quilmes Qualifier: they were leading by two goals with twenty minutes to play but three late Argentinean goals destroyed their World Cup dream. This could mean the end of a brilliant era of Belgium hockey, topped by their bronze medal in the 2008 European Championship that humbled World Champions Germany to earn their berth for Beijing through a qualifying tournament.
Eight of the most experienced players will not travel with the squad to Salta, including charismatic captain Maxime LUYCX (266 caps), Loic VANDEWEGUE (221 Caps) and Jerôme TRUYENS (155 Caps). The 943 collective Caps of these missing players have been replaced by development players aged 18 to 22 and totalling… 25 caps between themselves.
Host Argentina are on a high after their spectacular win in Quilmes that put an end to a string of losses in critical matches (2007 Pan American Games and 2009 Pan American Cup against Canada, 2008 Olympic Qualifier against new Zealand). Under the new leadership of coach Pablo LOMBI, they have built a talented side with a blend of experience and youth.
Like Belgium, they have opted to come to Salta without some of their more experienced players (Mario ALMADA, who scored the winning goal in Quilmes, Fernando ZYLBERBERG, Lucas CAMMARERI and the ARGENTO brothers) to give international exposure and responsibilities to their younger players. But they will be able to count on the excellent recent form of Pedro IBARRA, top goal-scorer at the Qualifier in Quilmes with 9 goals (6 penalty-corners and 3 penalty-strokes) despite missing one game on suspension.
Canada are just behind Argentina in the World Rankings (11th) and have been on a steady upwards progression in the last few years. After winning the 2007 Pan American Games and qualifying for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, they won the 2009 Pan American Cup to qualify for the World Cup in Delhi.
The Canadian squad has developed around a well balanced mix of young and seasoned players, lead by veterans Rob SHORT and Ken PEREIRA, both closing in on 300 international Caps. The Canadian defence is anchored by Paul WETTLAUFER, another veteran of two Olympic Games, and Scott TUPPER, who currently plays in the top German league.
India have fallen down just behind Canada in the World Rankings, but have recently won a 7-Match Test Series against the Canadians in Vancouver. They are obviously working hard to put up a good show in “their” World Cup at home next year. They came to Salta with 22 players and are conducting here a mini-selection camp before announcing their final squad.
China struggled lately. Despite a flattering World Ranking of 13th and a decent bronze medal at the last Asian Cup, they only finished 4th at the World Cup Qualifier in Invercargill, losing twice to Scotland, and tying Wales and Malaysia, all much lower ranked teams.
They are coming to Salta with their strongest team and will try to convince the audience that the qualities showed at the Beijing Olympics were not just a flash in the pan.
South Africa are the lowest ranked team in Salta (15th). Despite regularly qualifying for international events through their continental competitions, they often struggle on the world stage. In Beijing, they collected the wooden spoon, losing all their matches, including a sobering 0-10 to Australia and an overtime loss to China for the 11th-12th positions.
They are coming to Salta with a renewed squad, the least experienced of the eight contenders with an average of only 28 Caps per player.
The eight teams are split into two pools of four based on their rankings, with New Zealand, Belgium, India and China in Pool A, and Pakistan, Argentina, Canada and South Africa in Pool B. Action gets underway on Sunday December 6 at the Popeye Club in Salta. Pakistan open the day against Canada, then Belgium play China, New Zealand face off India before host Argentina conclude against South Africa.
Please click here for direct access to the special tournament website.
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