Just as the women’s competition that starts today, the men’s competition promises to provide plenty of action, close contests and great hockey in the 2008 edition of the Olympic Games here in Beijing. The big four - Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain - are favorites to reach the semifinals, but competition promises to be fierce with a number of teams waiting only half a step behind, ready to jump at any opportunity.
After back-to-back titles in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, the Dutch had to content themselves with silver in Athens, but will come out blazing in Beijing to put down their stamp on another Olympic competition - especially given that it will be the last shot at Olympic glory for a group of legendary players: long-time captain Jeroen Delmee, who had the honor of entering the stadium as flagbearer for the Dutch delegation at these Olympic Games on Friday, stalwart defender Sander van der Weide, Guus Vogels, considered the best goalkeeper in the world by many, and last but not least the great name in hockey - three time WorldHockey Player of the Year Teun de Nooijer.
Neighbors and World Champions Germany have been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride in the past two years, storming to the title in Mönchengladbach, but failing to qualify for the current Olympic tournament directly by losing out to Belgium in the bronze medal match of the European Nations Championships in Manchester in August 2007. The Champions Trophy title in December 2007 was followed by a leisurely stroll to Olympic qualification - in the six matches of their qualifier, Germany scored 34 goals without conceding a single one.
At the recent Champions Trophy in Rotterdam however, the Germans could not get past fifth place after recording 3 defeats and a tie in the pool round but has since welcomed über-striker Christopher Zeller back to the squad who had been out with injury since the German league finals. Paired with ingenious forward and penalty corner flicker Florian Keller, who comes from a family that boasts 4 Olympic gold medals from 3 generations of players, and Matthias Witthaus, a deadly striker who at 25 closes in on 300 caps, Zeller forms part of a forward line that will give any defense in this tournament a serious headache.
It is the first Olympics with the men’s team for head coach Markus Weise, but he has an Olympic gold medal to his name, having taken the women to the top of the podium four years ago, and he has high hopes for repeating the feat.
Pool opponents Spain may well be a team to stand in the way of that, looking to pick up their first title in one of the big tournaments, the World Cup and Olympics. With a generation of exceptional players hitting their prime, the opportunity is certainly there.
In a team overflowing with talent, the first forward line of temperamental Edi Tubau, lightning-quick Pol Amat, and ever-reliable Santi Freixa stands out, but it is difficult to single out the players to watch for in this exciting side. There’s also David Alegre, famous for scoring impossible goals, Rodri Garza, fullback par excellence, and Sergi Enrique who has been an integral part of the team since he was called up when barely seventeen years old, and many more.
Some people also cite the signs pointing towards this being Spain’s big year: the Iberians already have the European Champion title in football to their name, cyclist Carlos Sastre has stormed to a Tour de France win, and tennis superstar Rafal Nadal - after claiming the honors in Roland Garros and Wimbledon - will claim the number one spot in the world ranking list fort he first time on 18 August, after 159 consecutive weeks a step behind Roger Federer.
And the hockey team has their very own herald of good luck too: head coach Maurits Hendriks became a father for the first time on the day of the opening ceremony. With the number eight signifying luck in China, a child born on 8 August 2008 can only be a powerful lucky charm.
According to Hendriks however, Australia is the team to watch however. „Australia is the absolute favorite,“ Hendriks said in a recent interview. „They are the Olympic Champion and the Australians are also the winners oft he Champions Trophy. We are well aware of their strength - we lost twice against them this year and lost both times. I would love to see us meet them again in the final.“
The Kookaburras have a good blend of young and experienced players, with the dazzling dribbling of Athens golden boy and 2007 WorldHockey Player of the Year Jamie Dwyer always a sight to see. Another player to watch out for on the Aussie squad is 21-year-old Eddie Ockenden, one of the most exciting young players to burst onto the scene lately. In the past year, Ockenden has picked up the title of Most Promising Young Player at both the 2007 and 2008 Champions Trophy tournaments, and the Beijing tournament may well see him rise to new heights.
Korea is another force to be reckoned with. After a silver medal in Sydney, they hit a slump with an eighth place in Athens and fourth places in the last two World Cups, but the team has always stayed close to the top. Led by veterans Jong Bae Kim, Woon Kon Yeo and team captain Jong Ho Seo, Korea will be relying heavily on their penalty corner star Jong Hyun Jang to score for them, but speedy striker Hyo Sik You is also one of their players to look out for.
A lacklustre performance at the recent Champions Trophy, where the Koreans played an uninspired game and showed themselves unable to adapt their tactics to their opponent, resulted in the last place among the six participants, but on must not be fooled by this performance: it is quite clear that the current Asian champions have an ace or two up their sleeves.
One of the teams they will be up against in pool A is New Zealand. The Blacksticks had to fight their way into the tournament, having to go through a qualifying tournament to get here and defeat Argentina in an emotional final in front of a fabulous home crowd in Auckland but must not be written off. Having finished 6th in Athens and 7th at the last World Cup, they are certainly one of the teams to be able to challenge the big four.
In his first Olympics after tragically missing the Athens Games due to injury, team captain Ryan Archibald hopes to lead a team to glory that finds ist strength in the team performance more than in the outstanding deeds of individuals. Hayden Shaw brings in his cracking penalty corner flicks, Phil Burrows his supreme ability for closing the deal when in the circle, Simon Child the carefreeness of the prodigy, and Blair Hopping stability and reliability in defense.
Belgium took the spotlight a year ago as the dragonslayers, defeating World Champions Germany for direct qualification for the current tournament - their first appearance in an Olympic hockey tournament in 32 years. Australian-born head coach Adam Commens exerts modesty however. „At the moment, we are ranked 12th in the world, the top 8 would thus be fantastic. Of course it is great to strive for a medal, and of course that will be at the back of everyone’s minds. But you also have to be realistic, certainly so when you’re in a pool as difficult as ours.“
Nonetheless, his sights are set on Olympic glory. „Also, we are planning for the long term: our team is talented but young. Ask me the same question in four years time again, and I will probably give a different answer.“ The young talent of the team includes John-John Dohmen and Jerome Truyens who had 20 and 21 respectively sport around a hundred caps each. Complemented with the outstanding Vandeweghe brothers, defender Loic and forward Charles, as well as veterans Thierry Renaer, Philippe Goldberg and Patrice Houssein, the Belgians certainly have the potential to upset any contender here and may - even if they themselves do not reach the semifinals - be a decisive factor in who does as the hurdle to take for the others.
Completing Belgium‘s pool A, together with Germany, Spain, Korea and New Zealand are the Chinese hosts. While the Chinese men have not been able to establish themselves as high up in the rankings as their female counterparts, the team has come a long way in the last few years and provided a glimpse of what is possible with a second place in last year’s Asian Games - ahead of hockey superpowers Pakistan and India. Players to look out for on the home team include high-scoring forward Na Yubo, team captain Song Yi.
In the other pool, Australia and the Netherlands face Great Britain, Canada, Pakistan and South Africa.
Great Britain have high hopes for this tournament, aiming to establish themselves near the top again with their home Olympics just four years away. With the 1988 gold medal still alive in the memories of many, including performance director David Faulkner who formed part of the winning side and is here in Beijing to watch the Brits strive for the semifinals, but face an uphill battle with Australia and the Netherlands in their pool.
A rigorous preparation saw the team tired in a few of the test matches here in China, and they suffered a setback when Simon Mantell had his nose broken, but the players should have recovered by the start of the tournament tomorrow. Exceptional midfielder Barry Middleton will be looking to guide his team through the event with support from penalty corner ace Richard Mantell, young rising star Ashley Jackson and excellent goalkeeper Ali McGregor.
Canada forced their way into these Olympics by wrestling down Argentina in the final of the 2007 Panamerican Games, and like Great Britain has undergone an intense preparation phase, including the Azlan Shah Cup as well as two tours in Europe. Team captain Rob Short, the oldest male participant in the tournament, is an outstanding player and leader to a squad which also features world-class goalkeeper Mike Mahood, powerful striker Connor Grimes and penalty corner flicker Wayne Fernandes. While it may prove a lot to ask for for the North Americans to challenge the top two in the pool, they are certainly capable of giving them a run for their money.
Pakistan only finished third in the last Asian Games and once more has to do without Sohail Abbas, but with India absent, aims to represent the subcontinent well. Veterans Muhammad Saqlain, Zeeshan Ashraf and Rehan Butt form a solid base for a side that contains exceptional striker Shakeel Abbasi and five teenagers - more than any other team in the competition.
South Africa are the big unknown here in Beijing. Having had to adjust the team composition to requirements on the representation of the different races, the team has struggled, and has not made many international appearances lately. A tenth place in the last Olympic Games and a twelfth place in the last World Cup seem to indicate that the team will not constitute a threat to most of the other sides‘ ambitions, but in pool B which looks much more open than pool A, who knows. Team captain Bruce Jacobs, Emile Smith, Clyde Abrahams and goalkeeper Chris Hibbert are the most experienced players on the team, while Lungile Tsolekile is one of the team’s most talented younger players.
The opening match for the men’s hockey competition will be contested tomorrow morning, with the home team in for a difficult opener against the World Champions from Germany. The encounter between Pakistan and Great Britain completes the early session of the day.
Later in the day, things promise to get exciting on pitch 2 where Korea takes on New Zealand and Spain meets Belgium. On the main pitch, pool favorites Australia and the Netherlands take on Canada and South Africa respectively, and it would be a big surprise if the two Europeans did not walk away with three points each.
The FIH website will be covering all of the hockey action in Beijing. The site will feature live written commentaries from every match, as well as action photos, results, tables, top scorers, match sheets and daily round-ups. You will also be able to download the Olympic Daily newsletter, being produced by the FIH media team in Beijing. The team will be working hard to bring you excellent coverage of the Olympic tournament.