The Men’s Hero FIH Road to London Olympic Qualifier starts on Saturday in Delhi, India, in the spectacular Major Dhyan Chand National Hockey Stadium, with 6 teams fighting for a single ticket for the Olympic Games this summer in London. While host India and Canada are favorites to reach the winner-take-all Final next Sunday, France and Poland could create some surprises.
This is the first of 3 Olympic Qualifiers, with the next two in Dublin, Ireland (March 10 to 18) and Kakamigahara, Japan (April 26 to May 6). The three winners join the nine teams already qualified through the Continental Championships last summer to make up the group of twelve to compete in London.
India is the top ranked team in this competition (10th in the latest FIH Rankings). The Indian team has a long and illustrious history at the Olympic Games. They have participated in every Games since their debut in 1928 in Amsterdam, except the last ones in Beijing, and gathered an impressive collection of honors, including 8 Gold Medals and an uninterrupted series of six victories between 1928 and 1956.
This was however in a distant past and India has been out of the pack of leading hockey nations for a while now (their last Olympic medal was in 1980 in Moscow). They can still dazzle the crowds with their speed and technics, but have trouble producing consistent results in the top competitions. At the 2010 World Cup, played in the same venue, with exuberant crowd support for the local team, India finished at a disappointing 8th place.
New coach Michael NOBBS has kept a core of experienced players, including penalty-corner specialist Sandeep SINGH, and added younger ones, with skills and speed. If they mesh well together, they will be a strong candidate for the Olympic berth.
Canada is the next team in the World Rankings, having just fallen a couple of notches down to 14th. They have a seasoned roster (average of 27 years old and 109 Caps) with a good mix of experienced campaigners (342 Caps for Ken Pereira, 340 for Rob Short) and young players with experience of world level competitions (2008 Olympic Games and 2010 World Cup). They struggled in the final of the recent Pan American Games, however, failing to lift their game and find solutions against their arch-rival Argentina.
At 18th, France are next in the FIH Rankings. They are in a rebuilding phase under newly appointed coach Frédéric SOYEZ, himself a stalwart of the National Team until recently. After a disappointing European campaign last summer (8th after 5 losses), he made some changes but kept a core of experienced players. Although a long shot for the final qualification spot, they are certainly capable of upsetting the top teams on a good day.
Poland have not participated in an outdoor world level event since the 2002 World Cup and are also struggling on the European scene. Nevertheless, with a world ranking of 19th and strong showings on the indoor scene they could be difficult opposition and should certainly not be taken lightly.
Originally reserve countries in the Olympic Qualification process, Singapore and Italy were called into action after the surprise withdrawal of Egypt (ranked 25th in the world) and the very late forfeit of the USA (ranked 24th). The Singaporeans have embraced the opportunity to develop their team, lining up a very young squad.
After 6 days of competition, with the ruthless format of the Olympic Qualifier, only one team will earn a berth for London while the other five squads will go home with shattered Olympic dreams.
Action starts on Saturday at the Major Dhyan Chand National Hockey Stadium in Delhi with Canada against Italy, then France takes on Poland and finally host India meets Singapore.
Saturday February 18 (men)
14h00: Canada vs. Italy
16h00: France vs. Poland
20h00: India vs. Singapore
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