This weekend sees the start of the WorldHockey Champions Trophy in Rotterdam, bringing together Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Spain, Korea and Argentina. Five of the six competitors are well on their way in their preparations for the Olympic hockey tournament starting in seven weeks, so the event will be a prime indicator of how their form is coming along.
With the Champions Trophy being the meeting of the best teams in the world, predictions are difficult, as almost every team is capable of defeating every other. Germany and Australia have recently put forward impressive scorelines against New Zealand and Belgium respectively, while Spain and Argentina both defeated New Zealand on narrower margins, and Korea booked a win over the Dutch.
Record trophy winners Germany have had a busy season and little time to prepare for the event as a team. Having missed out on direct qualification for Beijing, the World Champions had to go through Olympic qualification in April which pushed the national league schedule back by more than a month.
With players still tied up in club action as late as last weekend, national team activities have been minimal but did include test matches against Great Britain (2-2, 4-4 and 2-1) and Pakistan (2-1 and 6-0) in May. Two more encounters with equally Olympic-bound New Zealand yielded two comfortable wins last week, with Germany defeating the Blacksticks 6-2 and 4-2.
Confident and relying on their strengths, the Germans go into the tournament as favorites despite the absence of two regulars, prolific striker Christopher Zeller who has yet to fully recover from two knee surgeries and young but up-and-coming defender Max Müller who recently suffered a hand injury. The Germans field the youngest team of the competition with an average age of only 24,5 years, and are the only team to have no player older than 30 but still have some vastly experienced players - with an average 117 caps, they equal Spain in that aspect and are 40 caps ahead of Argentina and 20 ahead of Korea, hanks to players like Tibor Weissenborn, sporting 307 caps at the age of 27 and Matthias Witthaus, who boasts 270 caps at the age of 25.
Spain come to Rotterdam off an intense preparation phase already, including matches against Great Britain (two draws) and a 3-1 defeat of New Zealand. No important absences for the Spanish are known yet, despite minor injury worries for Edi Tubau and Ramon Alegre who were rested during the test matches in the past few days but are expected to be available and fit when the competition gets underway on Saturday.
The Spanish contingent is the only one in this event to include a teenager in 18 year old fiery forward Roc Oliva, but like the other teams here in Rotterdam fields mostly highly experienced players, such as explosive striker Pol Amat, long-time captain Kiko Fabregas and stalwart defenders Xavi Ribas and Rodri Garza. The Spaniard's test match appearances against New Zealand and Canada this week have yielded two wins but in half-hearted appearances, and it remains to be seen if the Iberians can flip the switch and suddenly come out blazing from the weekend.
The hosts from the Netherlands go into the tournament with the oldest and most experienced team in this Champions Trophy - with an average age of 27,4 years and an impressive 140 caps on average. The Oranjes have to do without penalty corner specialist Taeke Taekema, who is recovering from an injury sustained in the national league finals last month and has not yet resumed training with the squad. Experienced defender Sander van der Weide also sustained an injury in last week's match of the national team against a team of old internationals, and has been replaced at the last minute by 22-year-old Wouter Jolie.
As for the other teams, the Oranje roster includes mainly the usual suspects such as long-time team veterans three time WorldHockey Player of the Year Teun de Nooijer, team captain Jeroen Delmee and superstar goalkeeper Guus Vogels but also includes Jeroen Hertzberger who impressed in his first senior international appearance for Holland in last year's Champions Trophy and - for the first time in an world-level event - Scot-gone-Dutch Laurence Docherty. Despite some lacklustre performances in preparation, the team of Roeland Oltmans is of course always a force to be reckoned with.
Australia have probably had the best performances in preparation for this event, hitting peak form on point and dispatching fellow Olympic-bound Belgium in two test matches this week. The Kookaburras do without fixed-point of many years Brent Livermore who was left off the roster even before recently suffering a stress fracture in his foot, but can rely on the experience of Matthew Wells, the team's most capped player, anchor-in-defense Bevan George and Athens golden goal scorer Jamie Dwyer.
With an average 100 caps however, Australia are only more experienced than Argentina, falling behind the other four teams, and field three of the tournament's least capped players - not including the team's youngest player, 21-year-old Eddie Ockenden, who was voted Most Promising Young Player at last year's Champions Trophy.
Korea's team includes all the main players of the one that finished fourth in last year's Champions Trophy, including team captain Jong Ho Seo, the team's most capped player Woon Kon Yeo, energetic forward Hyo Sik You and fierce penalty corner flicker Jong Hyun Jang. Also making another appearance for the team is young Moon Kweon Kang, who as the team's by far youngest player put forward an appealing big event debut in Kuala Lumpur last December.
Little is known on the Korean's preparations apart from a test match with the Netherlands on the competition pitch last Tuesday, in which the Asians took the honors with a 3-2 victory against a Dutch team that was far from going all out.
Argentina are the lowest ranked team in the competition, and the only team at the WorldHockey Champions Trophy not going to the Olympic Games later this summer. Since the disappointing loss in Auckland that denied them the ticket to Beijing, there have been few changes to the set-up apart from the renunciation of coach Sergio Vigil who has since been replaced by his assistant coach and long-time Argentina international Carlos Retegui.
Expectations for the South-Americans against the best of the best in this event are low and they are only at the start of a build-up phase, with the Champions Trophy coming as their only big international tournament until the Pan American Cup in March 2009, which will be their chance to qualify directly for the 2010 Hockey World Cup. This way, the white-and-blue step up in Rotterdam without pressure and go into the tournament just looking to rake up another confidence-restoring good result after winning the Azlan Shah Cup ahead of India, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada and Malaysia last month.
With this high-calibre field, anything seems possible when these teams march onto the main pitch of Hockey Club Rotterdam's impressive facilities from Saturday, and the expected large numbers of spectators will not only be able to follow the exciting matches of the men's Champions Trophy but also those of a women's four nations event, including the Netherlands, Great Britain, and India, to be held concurrently.
All information on the WorldHockey Champions Trophy will be available from the FIH event site, including results, scorers, action photos and live commentary from all matches. Additionally, all matches will be streamed online live, direct and free by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) on the recently relaunched streaming site www.worldhockey.tv.