Same Place, Same Result, New Team, New Feeling
Australian journalist Michelangelo Rucci reviews the BDO Hockey Champions Trophy…
On the Hockeyroos team bus heading to Sydney Olympic Park for the BDO Champions Trophy final against titleholder China, members of the Australian women’s hockey team – players, coaches and officials – began looking at each other differently … and feeling different.
Three years after starting a rebuilding program that would always be burdened by the achievements of the double-double golden Hockeyroos who won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals in succession, this Australian team was going to Homebush Bay – scene of Australia’s 2000 Olympic triumph – to make its own name. As one team official put it, these Hockeyroos now believed they had their own place in history to claim. 'You can feel it; it is tangible … and powerful,' the team leader said.
Three years of living in the shadow of 'Charlie’s Angels' and of not winning any title ended for Australia on the wintry-like Sunday afternoon of December 7 at Homebush. The Hockeyroos, beaten by China 1-0 in the qualification matches and through to the final only by the grace of The Netherlands holding an unbeaten Argentina to a 3-3 draw, started a new era under the grey clouds of Sydney.
The 3-2 win against China – after Australia led 3-0 at the 16th minute and held on grimly to a one-goal advantage for the last six minutes – put the Champions Trophy back in the Hockeyroos’ hands for the first time since 1999. It lifted Australia’s world ranking to No. 2 and revealed there is a new Hockeyroos team primed to maintain tradition at Athens in 2004, but to a script of its own making.
Bianca Netzler, one of the 13 non-Sydney 2000 Hockeyroos in David Bell’s Australian squad, won her first A-class title at this Champions Trophy that revealed a new spirit in a new Australian team.
'For the last three years we’ve worked off a clean slate,' said Netzler, emphasising this Hockeyroos team was about making its own mark in world hockey rather than continuing any theme from the Ric Charlesworth era. 'We had no pre-conceived ideas of what it would be like. We just set about working hard and doing that for the past three years has taken us to where we are now. And it is a great feeling.'
Twelve months earlier as the World Cup slipped from Australia’s hold in Perth, there was still uncertainty within the team and about the Hockeyroos. But perhaps few realized just how far this Australian team has had to come to get out of the shadow of past glories.
'For the past three years,' noted Bell, 'we have come away from tournaments thinking we are getting better, we’ve always come away knowing we were improving, but we had nothing to show for it.'
Now the Champions Trophy is back in the prize cabinet in Melbourne. And so is the respect the Hockeyroos crave for themselves rather than past Australian teams.
Sydney, three years on from the Olympics, was always destined to draw comparisons with 2000. But while the Olympics were Australia’s big party, the BDO Champions Trophy was an austere event. Even the summer which bloomed so early for the 2000 Olympics stayed away for the BDO Champions Trophy.
Sydney Olympic Park remains a stunning legacy for Australian sport with the BDO Champions Trophy a classic example of how Sydney is determined to attract leading sporting events to its city to ensure the Olympic venue does not gather dust as a ghost town occasionally disturbed by tourists wanting to rekindle Olympic memories.
Argentina, the world champion, drew heavily on those memories as it started the BDO Champions Trophy as the world No. 1 and tournament favourite … and with coach Sergio Vigil away from the team as he dealt with duties of becoming a father 10 days before the event began. The Argentines, gripped by financial woes at home, also had to deal with the disappointment of not finding accommodation as they expected in Sydney.
But their performances were outstanding as Argentina played to the strengths of captain and key midfielder Luciana Aymar and found new playmakers such as Marina DiGiacomo. And the spirit of Sydney 2000, at which Argentina won Olympic silver burned on.
'We have very happy memories of Australia,' noted stand-in coach Gabriel Minadeo before this BDO Champions Trophy turned sour with Argentina being unbeaten in qualification matches and lost the bronze-medal play-off 3-2 to the Dutch. 'Sydney is where the Lionesses were born. This is where it all started.'
After Australia opened with a 5-0 thumping of a hapless English – which would recover to be a menace to all at the end of the tournament and keep its No. 5 ranking – and the Hockeyroos fell 1-0 to China, it seemed the BDO Champions Trophy would be destined for a rematch of the 2002 final between Argentina and the well-drilled Chinese who thrived on the goalkeeper of Nie Yali and the goalscoring prowess of Fu Baorong.
The Netherlands started poorly with coach Marc Lammers lamenting his players’ lack of any finishing touch which he attributed to the team being prepared for club hockey rather than the international game. His side had the game’s two best female players, according to the WorldHockey Player of the Year announcements – captain Mijntje Donners as the senior player of the year and calm defender Maartje Scheepstra as the junior. Donners selection ahead of Aymar – the Player of the Tournament in Sydney – was a controversy only superseded by China coach Kim Changback’s fury on the bench during his team’s 2-2 draw with England in the final round of qualification matches. This prompted a warning and reprimand for Changback. The Argentines’ discontent with Aymar being pipped by Donners for the Player of the Year title set up a dramatic and feisty 3-3 draw with the Dutch, who denied Argentina the right to play for gold and then took bronze from them the next day with a 3-2 result in the third-place play-off. At least Aymar walked away with the Player of the Tournament award.
England coach Trish Heberle was the star of the after-match press conferences with her frank assessments of her team and of the game in general – in particular the spate of yellow cards which were imposed in the fifth-place play-off which England won 4-2 on penalty strokes after a 2-2 deadlock in regulation and extra time.
Her critique of the English after the 5-0 loss to Australia prompted the English players to take responsibility for their destiny and, rather than continue to wallow in self-doubt created in Barcelona this year, they rebounded to beat the Dutch, to hold China to a draw and to beat Korea in a penalty shoot-out. This was enough to leave Korea manager Kim Sang Ryul saying: 'I must give up women’s hockey; it will kill me.'
Australia’s win in the final proved how much a game can be won off the field. The Hockeyroos’ pre-game strategy was to distance the Chinese defenders and expose Yali. It took just 34 seconds for captain Katrina Powell to engineer this tactic and have her long pass across the pads of Yali tapped into the goal by Julie Towers.
Changback noted: 'The Australian team is very good with its forward players; they are very strong. They gave us some problems in our defence area.'
China did make for a tense finish getting it back to 3-2 with six minutes to play to maintain the theme of a dramatic BDO Champions Trophy which proves the chase for Olympic medals in Athens will indeed be intense. Australia’s dark mark from its golden day at Sydney Olympic Park was the loss of key defender Angie Skirving with a knee injury, thought to be very serious, in the first 10 minutes of the final.
As austere as this return to Sydney was, this BDO Champions Trophy revealed the standards leading up to Athens are on the up. Certainly the Hockeyroos believe they are lifting the bar. They truly do believe it .. and in themselves. It is an ominous tone.
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