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First Olympic appearance for Azerbaijan or fifth in a row for Spain?
11 Apr 2008 10:45

© FIH / Wolfgang Sternberger

Looking at the numbers, the Spanish women should have little difficulty grabbing the elusive ticket to Beijing here in Baku. Ranked 7 places ahead of any other team, the Spanish are also the only team at this qualifer to have competed in Olympic Games before, and an Olympic gold medalist at that, and they have had most high level exposure and the best results in international top hockey in the last couple of years.

An unexpected 4th in the 2006 World Cup, the team of Pablo Usoz ever so narrowly missed out on direct qualification for Beijing when they lost 2-3 to England in the dramatic bronze medal match of the European Nations Championship last August. Now, they are determined to remedy that error and secure their 5th Olympic appearance in a row.

With a great blend of experienced players such as captain Silvia Muñoz, exceptionally talented but temperamental Nuria Camon, and defensive stronghold goalkeeper Maria Jesus Rosa alongside exciting new talents such as young Georgina Oliva, the team certainly has the potential to achieve this, but they have shown nerves in deciding games before, caving in at crucial moments.

The second ranked hosts from Azerbaijan are keen to capitalize on this weakness, but in the past have themselves been prone to getting caught up in internal struggles when the going gets tough. With the home advantage on their side however, and the support of capacity crowds predicted for their matches, the team around veterans Zarifahon Zeynalova, Dilfuza Mirzaliyeva, and Inoyathon Jafarova is resolved to finally get their big break.

Having gone through months of intense preparations and playing a large number of test matches including such exotic encounters as one with current World Champions Netherlands in Oman last January which the world number 1 won by only one goal, the Azerbaijan team are as ready as they ever will be to take the next step, upstage Spain, and book their ticket to Beijing.

The two teams drew 2-2 at the Manchester European Championships, but while Spain's team has remained largely unchanged, the squad of Pakistani coach Tahir Zaman has undergone a true metamorphosis. Long-time team captain Zeynab Nuriyeva retired, feeling unable to undergo the rigors of an Olympic qualifying tournament at the age of 39, and of the 5 formerly Korean players that Azerbaijan had incorporated into their squad for the Manchester Europeans, only 2 remain - to be joined for this event by 6 new formerly Korean and Chinese players who have in the meantime acquired Azerbaijan nationality.

Following closely behind is the team from the Ukraine. In the same European Championship last August where Spain and Azerbaijan finished 4th and 5th respectively, they came 8th and had to accept relegation from the top flight of European nations hockey. The Ukrainians met both those other two European nations at that event, and lost 1-4 to Spain and 1-3 to Azerbaijan.

Since then however, there has been an important change in Svitlana Makayeva's squad: the long awaited return of Tetyana Kobzenko. Considered one of the best women hockey players in the world, Kobzenko has been nominated for the WorldHockey Player of the Year award several times and won the title of Player of the Tournament in the 2004 Olympic Qualifier - a remarkable feat taking into account that her team finished last in the event.

After impressing at the 2005 Europan Nations Championship, Kobzenko was recruited by Dutch top club Amsterdam and signed a two year contract, but her Hoofdklasse career was cut short by a severe knee injury in early 2006 that required extensive surgery that was only the start into a lengthy recovery process that has kept Kobzenko out of international action since then. Now aged 31, it remains to be seen whether Kobzenko still has 'it', but next to extraordinarily talented and skillful team mates such as Maryna Vynohradova and Tetyana Salenko, one more top class player may well put the girls in yellow and blue into a position to give the top two a run for their money.

The third former Soviet Republic in the tournament, Belarus are clear underdogs at a current world ranking of 33, 25 places behind Spain and 9 behind fifth ranked Chile. Currently playing solidly in the B division of the European nations competitions, Belarus however dispose of some impressive players, and are by no means an easy walkover. In Yuliya Laptsevich, the team has an experienced and rock-solid leader of its defense, while Alesia Tratsiakova, speedy and fierce, spear-heads the attack - unfortunately this time without her usual partner Volha Shyntar, a key player for Belarus but unavailable for this tournament due to injury.

Chile go into this tournament ranked fourth, but as Belarus or Kenya are hard to rate due to their prolonged absence from top-level international hockey. The Chilean girls finished fourth in last year's Pan American Games, behind Argentina, the USA, and the Dutch Antilles, and finished second behind Argentina in last month's South American Championships, winning all their matches except for a draw with Uruguay and a 1-4 defeat at the hands of Argentina. Players to watch include the Infante sisters, two of which, Daniela and Paula, made the 2007 Pan American Games All-Star team, and team captain Michelle Wilson, as well as young star Sofia Walbaum.

The sixth team in the Baku qualifier are the women from Kenya. Having only competed within their continent for many years, the Kenyan women are also largely an unknown factor. They are ranked fourth in the tournament, but their preparations were severely hindered by the political situation and turmoil in their country, which also saw them temporarily withdraw from the event when funding for the trip fell through. After the elation of eventually securing the necessary funds and being allowed back into the tournament, Kenya now face a new rough patch in their rocky road to Olympic qualification: due to visa issues, their voyage to Baku has stalled, and with less than 24 hours to go before their first encounter, they have yet to arrive in Azerbaijan.

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