China join Pak, Korea to challenge Australia and Europe in hockey (Preview)

August 9th, 2008 - 3:50 pm ICT by IANS  

By V.Krishnaswamy
Beijing, Aug 9 (IANS) Hockey’s biggest gold grosser India will miss the party celebrating the sport’s 100 years at the Olympic Games. That leaves the Asian challenge in the hands of Continental champions South Korea, hosts and Asiad silver medalists China and the talented but unpredictable Pakistan. The Asian trio will attempt to hold off the Australians and the European powerhouses in a game that for many years was dominated by Asia.

Hosts China will be the new team to watch out from Asia as they created waves at the last Asian Games with wins over India and Pakistan on way to a silver behind Korea at Doha.

The Chinese are being coached by the Korean Kim Sang Ryul — interestingly the women’s team is also coached by a Korean Kim Chang Bak.

The duo had succeeded in getting China their best results in Asian Games, where the women won gold and men the silver.

World Cup champions Germany are drawn with Spain, China, South Korea, New Zealand and Belgium in group A of the preliminary league. The other group appears tougher, with Australia alongside the Netherlands, Pakistan, Britain, South Africa and Canada.

The Dutch take on South Africa in their opening match Monday.

From an Asian angle, Pakistan will still be the sentimental favourites, but they won the last of their three gold medals in 1984 after which European teams have dominated before Australia won for the first time in 2004.

The Koreans are supremely fit, but also inconsistent. They can, however, upset any team on their day. Silver medallists at Sydney Games in 2000, they dropped to eighth in 2004, but came fourth in the 2006 World Cup and won the 2006 Asian Games. At the 2008 Champions Trophy, Korea beat the Dutch 4-3 while finishing sixth and that’s a result the Dutch will not forget in a hurry.

Meanwhile Australia will hope to defend their title against a strong field, which has the Dutch, Germans and the Spaniards. Australia won the 2004 gold with a Golden goal by Jamie Dwyer.

Australia reclaimed the number one ranking this year at Germany’s expense by winning the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands in June.

Earlier Australia, had lost to Germany in the final of both the 2006 World Cup and the 2007 Champions Trophy.

Australian coach Barry Dancer said the number one tag means little in the 12-nation competition. “Teams such as Germany, the Netherlands and Spain are all quality teams who, along with a number of other countries, are all capable of winning gold..”

Dancer retires at the end of the year after a six-year stint with the Kookaburras.

Field hockey was first played at the Summer Games in London in 1908 with six teams drawn from England, Ireland and Scotland, but it was not until the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 it became a regular medal sport.

India reigned supreme on grass with six consecutive titles from 1928 to 1956 and two more in Tokyo in 1964 and Moscow in 1980.

But since the switch to synthetic turf, India have struggled and failed to qualify for the Beijing Games. The Indians will miss the Olympics for the first time in 80 years after losing to Great Britain in a qualifying tournament in Chile in April.

“No one wanted to see India out of the Olympics but the reality is that the best 12 nations have qualified for Beijing,” said International Hockey Federation chief Els van Breda Vriesman recently. “But I am confident they will come back stronger and ready to take on the world again.”

Germany are hoping to win their first gold since Barcelona Games in 1992. They had won in 1972 as West Germany.

Germany failed to finish among the top three in the European championships and missed out on a direct entry to Beijing, but won the Olympic qualifier in April without conceding a goal against formidable opponents in hosts Japan and Malaysia.

Men’s hockey has become very close as was seen in May when Argentina and India, both non-qualifiers, played the Azlan Shah final in Malaysia ahead of four Olympic teams, New Zealand, Pakistan, Canada and Belgium.

Spain, seen as major contenders, have prepared for the Olympics with a short three-day holiday relaxing on a beach in southern China. Coach Maurits Hendriks feels this will rejuvenate his team.

Spain is often tagged as the best men’s hockey team never to have won an Olympic gold medal. They lost in the semi-finals to eventual champions Australia in 2004.

For the Dutch, their hockey legend Teun de Nooijer will be hoping for a gold at his fourth and final Olympics to make up for the loss in final to Australia in Athens. Holland and de Nooijer had won the two previous gold medals in hockey in 1996 and 2000 Games.

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