Sahara Hockey Champions Challenge Preview: Impossible is Nothing
30 Mar 2005 09:45
More often than not, hockey tournaments are somewhat predictable. While admittedly exact final rankings are not that easy to foresee and also admittedly noone quite saw the German girls snatch Olympic gold or the Egyptians taking All Africa glory, it is often enough the usual suspects on the podium. But this event promises to be different.
It is early in a rather quiet season in senior international hockey, and it is the year after Olympic Games which - as is common with the top events - were followed by retirements and restructuring, players and coaches seeking new challenges or at least new employers, and young talents pushing their way onto the scene. Speaking of retirements, the teams making their way to Alexandria all have had to and have to deal with numerous, with those no longer active in elite international hockey including such illustrous names and long-time constants as Maxi Caldas, Carlos Retegui and Pablo Moreira from Argentina, Craig Jackson, Gregg Clark, and Greg Nicol from the South African squad, Englishmen Simon Mason, Craig Parnham, and Danny Hall, or Yong Bae Kim and Seung Tae Song from the Asian representative in the tournament, Korea. Undoubtedly, how well the participants cope with those absences and how well the new boys fit in will be a deciding factor in how they will fare in this first FIH tournament of 2005. A priori, experience speaks in favor of the Argentines and Belgians whose average almost 90 and over 70 caps respectively compare favorably with England's not quite 40 and South Africa's humble 20.
Both the South Americans and the Belgians are also highly motivated by the disappointments of 2004: the Argentines had set out to improve their Sidney 8th place final ranking but ended up just handing the red lantern over to the Egyptians, while the Belgians fared worse still with their heart-breaking defeat in a penalty stroke competition in the deciding game in Madrid, the South Africans wrenching the ticket to Athens from their hands at the very last minute. In addition to an experienced lot of players and a burning ambition, the Belgians have put in quite a bit of work already despite a rather late call-up when New Zealand had to withdraw from the competition. With their planning originally geared towards the European Nations Cup in late summer of this year, plans were turned around in no time, and the Belgians this year already have completed two five match series against Malysia and the Australian Institute of Sport - conceding both series to their opponents 2-3 each - as well as two first friendlies against European B division nation Ireland last week which provided a little shock when Ireland took the first game 4-1, but Belgium recovered well to level the series with a 4-2 victory in game 2.
Both teams will be chasing tournament favorites Korea. The Asian team has a well balanced set of experienced and young players following their usual restructuring after an Olympic season and the best Olympic finish of all Alexandria participants speaking for them, but has not played international matches in the setup they will be using. On paper, they are the ones to win promotion to the 2006 Champions Trophy, but as set out at the beginning of this article, surprises are to be expected.
Hosts Egypt once again are the dark horse in the competition. Having qualified for Athens with their surprise first place in the 2003 All Africa Games, their Olympic appearance turned out sobering with a dismal 0 points from 5 pool matches, followed by a 1-5 whipping at the hands of continental rivals South Africa and a 2-4 defeat at the hands of Argentina for a last place finish. Aside from several changes to the team that competed last summer, the big unknown in the equation is new head coach Gerhard Rach. The German was last year's talk of the town, first for being appointed as new Indian head coach shortly before the Olympic Games in an entirely unexpected move from the Indian federation, and later in the year when Rach and the IHF publicly locked horns, lashing out at each other via the media, which abruptly ended with Rach's second surprise signing in 2004 as new Egyptian head coach. It has been four months since then, and the next ten days will be a first indicator of what Rach has been able to achieve during that time - and whether Rach and the EHF are a more promising and less explosive concoction than Rach and the IHF were.
Completing the field of six is the English team who are reeling from substantial funding cuts and the controversy over competing as Great Britain in Olympic Games and individual home countries the rest of the time following a frustrating 9th place finish in Athens. Head coach Jason Lee is currently rebuilding the squad with young players around veterans Mark Pearn, captain Brett Garrard, Barry Middleton, and Ben Hawes, and is likely to be treating the Alexandria tournament as a testing ground for the European Nations Cup in late August. This might of course turn out to be an advantage for the English, as players are keen to make an impression and stake their claim in sight of the actual season highlight.
Current World Rank: 7
Latest Achievements: 8th place in Athens Olympics, 2nd in 2003 Champions Challenge
Players to Watch: Jong Ho Seo, Jung Seon Lee
Expected to Finish: 1st
Current World Rank: 9
Latest Achievements: 9th place in Athens Olympics (Great Britain), 5th in 2003 Champions Challenge
Players to Watch: Brett Garrard, Jonty Clarke
Expected to Finish: 4th
Current World Rank: 10
Latest Achievements: 11th place in Athens Olympics, 5th in 2003 Champions Trophy
Players to Watch: Mario Almada, Matias Vila
Expected to Finish: 2nd
Current World Rank: 12
Latest Achievements: 10th place in Athens Olympics, 3rd in 2003 Champions Challenge
Players to Watch: David Staniforth, Lungile Tsolekile
Expected to Finish: 6th
Current World Rank: 13
Latest Achievements: 12th place in Athens Olympics, Winner of 2003 All Africa Games
Players to Watch: Mohamed Yasser, Mohamed Sameh
Expected to Finish: 5th
Current World Rank: 14
Latest Achievements: 8th place in 2004 Olympic Qualifier
Players to Watch: Thierry Renaer, Thierry Stumpe
Expected to Finish: 3rd