Asia's Rising Stars
China and Korea are the rising stars of Asian women’s hockey. Claire Middleton, Hockey Correspondent of The Daily Telegraph (London) spent time with the China goalkeeper Yalie Nie and Korea’s captain Kim Seong Eun at the Champions Trophy in Sydney.
The flamboyant skills of India and Pakistan, plus the speed and sheer technical ability of the South Koreans, has meant Asian women’s hockey has spent rather too long playing second fiddle to the men’s game.
Sure, the Korean women surprised us in 1988 and delighted us in 1996 with dazzling Olympic campaigns, but the men have always been foremost in our thoughts – until now. The rise of China and the re-birth of the Koreans, plus notable successes over the last 24 months for India and Japan, means Asian women’s hockey is on the up. We saw it in Sydney, at the Champions’ Trophy, and we will surely see it again at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament next March: the only shame is that India will not be there.
Ric Charlesworth, the former Hockeyroos coach, believes the tide is turning towards Asia – notwithstanding the Australian victory on home soil in December. And there is no doubt that by August 2004, the Chinese especially will be a force, despite having missed much of 2003 because of the Sars epidemic.
The Chinese team is built around a solid defence, with their goalkeeper Yalie Nie, 30, probably the best at her craft in the world. At 1m 90cm she is one of the tallest too, so it came as no surprise to discover she had been diverted into hockey from a sports school in Jilin Province, where she had been a student of basketball.
Basketball runs in the family, for her father played and her brother still jumps hoops, skills which Yalie believes have stood her in good stead for her current career. With 142 appearances under her belt, she is probably right.
'It is good for my speed because it is played in quick bursts and you need quick reactions plus a good reach,' she said, courtesy of the translation skills of Catherine Yan Wang, a journalist covering the Champions’ Trophy for Shanghai Television.
'I wanted to be a basketball player and I went to the sports school; but they said I would be better as a hockey player and the coach picked me out. It has been really good because although the Sars episode meant we could not leave China, I have been to Argentina and Sydney in the last six months. They are beautiful places – especially Sydney – but I still love China the best.'
Although the Chinese team are together a lot – Thursdays and Saturdays are Yalie’s rest days – she said only around 600 women played the sport. However, it is well organised and the team are training two to four hours a day, with three weights sessions a week also scheduled. While they have their eyes on Athens, the bigger picture is the Beijing Games of 2008.
When she is not diving around on the pitch, Yalie enjoys listening to music, shopping – and playing basketball. She laughs when I ask which players she admires most: all those who were on the World Player of the Year list, she says, diplomatically, though she did admit those Argentine strikers were the best of the bunch.
She had a pretty good claim to be world player of the year herself, for she was outstanding in Sydney and had established a classy reputation at both the World Cup and Champions’ Trophy in 2002. In the end, she lost out to a European, though if Charlesworth is right, the spotlight will be firmly focused a lot further east in the coming years.
There is much to be admired in the Chinese way, even if their regime comes across as being on the austere side. Their coach, the Korean Kim Changback, is a serious fellow who prefers his native tongue to Chinese and employs an interpreter to get his messages across. He was warned in Sydney for being a touch too fiery on the bench, and there is no doubt he wants his team to win every game.
Their defensive skills are excellent and they try to get forward, though their outstanding striker Fu Barong probably still has to shoulder rather too much of the responsibility up front. Rather more lethal are their corner skills, though ironically it was the open-play route which almost got them back into the Sydney final against their hosts.
If you want a side which plays with their hearts on their sleeves, the Koreans are your team, especially their very special captain un, 27. Another nominee for World Player of the Year, she has 131 caps plus skills and pace to die for.
She started in the sport aged around 14 at middle school in Pyuntaek City, went to college and graduated as a physical education teacher. Her coach, the charming Kim Sang Ryul, said this of her: 'She is a very athletic player, the chance-maker for our team. She is a good captain and if there is some problem controlling the girls, she always goes the right way. She is an innocent player and sometimes umpiring decisions upset her. But she is a very good player.' Then he rolled his eyes. 'She has a boyfriend. And she loves shopping. Always shopping.'
After hockey – possibly even as soon as after Athens, assuming they qualify – Kim Seong Eun wants to stay in the sport, possibly coaching or umpiring (said with a wry smile following a harmless fifth-sixth play-off against England which somehow brought seven yellow cards). However, there being no money in either, teaching is likely to come to the fore; currently she is ‘employed’ by Korea Telecom.
So what is turning Asian hockey into a force? According to Charlesworth it is their ability to identify talent, and additionally in the case of China and Korea, to train full time.
'China had never beaten Australia, and now they have beaten us two or three times in the last couple of years,' he told an Australian newspaper during the Champions’ Trophy. 'The shift of power to Asia has already started and if Australia want to compete, we have to have full-time programmes and that means government resources. They are full-time, they have talent selection, they have got a very big population,' he said.
He predicted Japan were also heading towards a berth in the world’s top six, and also lamented the fact that India will not be at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament because of their failings in the World Cup Qualifier three years ago.
If the Koreans can stay on their entertaining path, the Indians can find more consistency and China can cast off their defensive shackles, the first decade of the 21st Century could see a seismic shift in the balance of power. The sun is certainly rising in the east.
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