A strong challenge expected


WITH the World Cup about to begin,the nature of the challenge coming from the 16 nations is beginning to crystalise with the European challenge going to be very strong. Europe has in the past provided just one country, the Netherlands, who have stepped up on to the podium and they have done so on three occasions. Will they equal Pakistan's four triumphs when competition ends in Kuala Lumpur or will another European country take the gold for the first time?

If there is anything certain about Dutch hockey it is that failure is usually followed by outstanding success. Their disastrous showing in the 1986 World Cup was followed four years later by their triumph in Lahore. And certainly the Dutch supporters at the recent Champions Trophy saw their bronze as failure. Indeed, they looked far from impressive because four of their key players were injured during the tournament. Nevertheless it would be impossible to write off the current World and Olympic Champions as no-hopers.

Dutch trump cards

With a large number of their World Cup winning side in the line-up again, the Dutch will not be short of experience with several players appearing in their third World Cup, including the great match winner Teun de Nooijer and Erik Jazet in the heart of their defence. The Dutch have trump cards in Bram Lomans and Taeke Taekema, menacing opposing defences in penalty corners and in their captain, Jeroen Delmee, one of the shrewdest defenders to be found in any of the squads.

The Dutch naturally will recall that in the 1975 World Cup they arrived as defending champions and surprisingly could only finish a disappointing ninth, their worst ever performance in the event. Perhaps their largest obstacle here will be history and the heat. Dutch head coach Joost Bellaart, who has been involved in hockey for more than 30 years, is taking no chances with the weather. The team prepared itself in Egypt for the expected temperatures of Malaysia. What is certain is that Dutch will not surrender their title lightly with a semi-final place probable, even from the highly charged Pool 'A' in which the Netherlands line up with Germany, former champions Pakistan, Argentina, winners of the World Cup qualifier, Spain, silver medallist at the last World Cup, and the South Africans who might create a surprise or two.

Consistent Germans

Even though the Germans have been the world's most consistent team over the years, success in the World Cup has eluded them. Although, with the exception of the first World Cup in Barcelona, they have reached the semi- finals in all the other World Cups, all they have to show for their efforts are a silver and four bronze medals. The Sydney Olympics saw German hockey drop to perhaps its lowest point in two decades when it failed to qualify for the semi-finals and afterwards saw the departure of long term coach, Paul Lissek, and a few established players. The notable exception being Christoph Bechmann. New coach Bernhard Peters, the juniors coach, who replaced Lissek, was very familiar with the players and they have retained his confidence although Florian Kunz has replaced Christian Mayerhofer as captain.

Germany look to be in a good position to achieve that elusive World Cup gold. The German League is arguably the world's best and the national team went through the recent Champions Trophy in Rotterdam unbeaten after winning the Azlan Shah Cup last August in similar fashion. Under Peters they have put behind them their Sydney disappointments. Around Kunz they have built a solid, professional side which does the simple things well. And when they do attack they do so in numbers and style and with excellent finishing power.

The usual German consistency, ruthless efficiency with no little flair, has returned. At the back, Kunz and Mayerhofer have developed a superb partnership from which just about all their attacks appear to start while up front the highly exciting, Oliver Domke, with the emergence of Bjorn Michel provide a forceful duo. The lynchpin for the Germans is likely to be Michael Green, who has been given a completely free roaming role which fits his non-stop aggressive style and highly developed tactical sense to a tee.

England, like Germany and the Netherlands, have acquired a new coach since the Sydney Olympics. They have in recent years established themselves on the fringes of the top six or seven without breaking through to the semi-final barrier. A medal in Kuala Lumpur would boost hockey at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester at the end of July and take the game back towards the heady moments enjoyed after the Great Britain team came back from Seoul with gold in 1988. Unfortunately Seoul is now history and successes have proved elusive since then.

England have prepared in more single-minded fashion than ever before, helped by vast sums of Government funded lottery. Some, in fact, fear this might be their undoing - that there could be a question of the players growing weary by the time they reach Malaysia. Malcolm Wood, who was invited to take over as chief coach when Barry Dancer returned to Australia, has been thorough in his search for a winning combination and has given many new players the chance to establish themselves. In the ten month build-up they will have played 31 internationals and 39 players will have come under scrutiny before the selected squad steps out on the Bukit Jalil pitches.

A solid side, not easy to beat, but still it lacks inspiration or, as some would say, it has not found successors for Sean Kerly, Richard Dodds or Imran Sherwani, or in more recent times a Russell Garcia. Not a side displaying much flair, England will rely on a hard working midfield in which Guy Fordham and Jimmy Wallis can be expected to do most of the foraging, and a solid back line with club mates Jon Wyatt and Tom Bertram in the centre and the gutsy Craig Parnham on the flank.

Parnham has made a remarkable return to international hockey in the last few weeks following his near fatal throat injury at the end of England's game against Pakistan in the Azlan Shah Tournament last August which left him in intensive care in KL's University hospital for a week. It will be an emotional return for him to KL. An experienced squad, calling on the majority of their Sydney team, but one which finds goals hard to come by.

The new coach is a shrewd exponent of tournament play and will be well prepared for the rigours of the World Cup. Equally he is under no illusion about the task facing his side. Wood believes his side is capable of challenging for a medal, certainly a semi-final berth is possible. What is certain is that opponents will need to treat England with more than a little respect.

The Spanish remain the great enigma. A Spanish side usually looks as if it is capable of great things but, all too often in major tournaments, crumbles up and slides down the finishing order as it did in the Sydney Olympics to finish ninth. There have been exceptions, notably the last World Cup when some observers thought it was unlucky not to beat the Dutch in the Utrecht final, or when it reached the Olympic final in Atlanta, again losing out to the Dutch, but the truth is that the Spanish have never won a World Cup or Olympic gold medal. Indeed only once have they taken European gold, way back in Madrid in 1974. Even so Spain remains one of the sides most top teams would prefer to avoid. Its results may be erratic but, on its day, it can produce a brand of free-flowing hockey capable of upsetting any higher ranked nation.

In Xavier Arnau it has a goal scoring forward who can turn most games and with the support of Pol Amat and the cagey Juan Escarre it has a formidable line up. In defence, it will be waiting anxiously for the return from injury of Pablo Amat to provide the support for Jordi Casas.

Belgium and Poland complete the European line-up. Belgium, the draw specialists in the World Cup qualifier in Edinburgh, crept into the semi- finals on the backs of draws against France, New Zealand and Spain with Argentina the only team to beat them before the final 5-2 defeat by Poland in the bronze medal game. A side heavily dependent in Edinburgh on three players aged over 30, Marc Cauldron, Alexandre de Chaffoy and Jean Willems. De Chaffoy decided afterwards to retire from international hockey. Former South African coach Giles Bonnet took over after Edinburgh, to-date losing all his games including those in the Champions Challenge. With a modest World Cup record Belgium is unlikely to surprise any opponents.

Spirited Poland

You have to admire the spirit of Poland. To its credit, from just 15 teams and a few hundred players, it will be participating in its third successive World event. Poland has a world class goalkeeper in Marcin Pouta and inspirational players in Tomasz Chocaj and Piotr Mikula. Like the Germans, the Poles are addicted to indoor hockey and their outdoor game has progressed as a result. No strangers to inflicting upsets, as Great Britain will testify when they were swept aside in the Olympic qualifier in Osaka losing 2-5, and are likely to do it again in KL. They are unlikely to be among the medals but are certain to make their presence felt.

So what of the European challenge? It will, I feel this time, be spearheaded by Germany, which on its recent performances starts as favourite, the Dutch should make it to the semi-finals from the same Pool with England, outsiders to claim a last four place from the other Pool.

It all adds up to a promising tournament for Europe. What does seem nearly certain is that the largest ever World Cup will provide exciting competition under the fierce Malaysian sun.