Demanding great attention

CONFIGURING the emerging alignment of power in competitive hockey at Athens is an interesting exercise, the transparent complexities notwithstanding.

S. THYAGARAJAN

Florian Kunz... Germany's inspiring force. — Pic. STANLEY CHOU/GETTY IMAGES-

CONFIGURING the emerging alignment of power in competitive hockey at Athens is an interesting exercise, the transparent complexities notwithstanding. Neither history nor the outcome of the previous edition at Sydney holds the key. So much water has flowed under the bridge in the intervening period unfolding a new vibrant vista, altering the very concept of the sport in terms of training, tactics and sophistication in approach. Never before has hockey become so scientific, professional and demanding great attention from the audience.

What lies ahead when the 12 best countries get into the fray for the gold on August 15 is best left for conjecture. But there are pointers that should be debated, dissected in detail.

Will the Dutch get the hat-trick to come in line with India, which scored a three-in-a-row twice, 1928 to 1936, and then from 1948 to 56? Winning the back-to-back gold at Sydney after the triumph in Atlanta four years earlier prompts speculation. But Holland was removed from the pedestal at the last World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, and gained only a bronze.

Hockey went through a very complex process of identifying the Olympic qualifiers through the continental championships and, of course, the pre-Olympic event at Madrid, where the top seven made the grade. Subsequently, the pools were drawn, as were the battle lines.

Tough pool

Joreon Delmee, an excellent midfielder, is at the helm of a seasoned Dutch side. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

Even a glance at the groupings suggests that Pool `A' headed by the World champion, Germany, is tough compared to the other. This assumption is open to dissent. Three among the six in this section, Germany, Pakistan and Great Britain, have won the Olympic titles more than once. An evaluation of the consistency rate makes Germany the popular choice to regain the gold it last won in 1992 at Barcelona. A dozen years have rolled by since those halcyon days of Carsten Fischer and Andreas Keller. A fifth place at the last Games did not really reflect the true strength.

Blend of youth & experience

When the team came under the gangling Berhnard Peters there was a change of direction. The happy blend of youth and experience gave the combination an aura of invincibility during the first-ever triumph at the World Cup in Kuala Lumpur in 2002. The inspiring force has been the towering Florian Kunz, assisted splendidly in the defence by Bjorn Michel and Michael Green, in the mid-field by Christian Wein, and in the attack by Christoph Bechmann, Mitthaus Witthaus and Sascha Reinalt. Small wonder, the team, skipping the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen — Germany fielded a second string — managed to retain the European Cup at Barcelona in 2003 to ensure its Olympic berth. Thrice gold medallist, Pakistan, and the remarkably improved Spain, along with the seasoned Great Britain, should vie for the second semi-final berth. The surprise packet however is Egypt, which has returned to the scene after finishing last in 1992.

In spite of the optimism generated, it is difficult to accept Pakistan as the force it once was. Out of the medal bracket after Barcelona and the gold since 1984 at Los Angeles, the swing from delight to despair for Pakistan has been striking. Appalling is the fact that Pakistan went without a medal in the Asian Games at Busan — it finished fourth — in 2002. It finished fifth at the last World Cup.

Not in great form

The Pakistanis believe that their Dutch coach, Roelant Oltmans, has the magic wand like his predecessor, Hans Jorritsma, to steer them to a position of strength. But the form of seniors is definitely worrisome, though the team relies heavily on the proficiency of the penalty corner specialist, Sohail Abbas. Mohammad Nadeem leads the pack in which the danger man for the rival defence is Taushif Jawad. The omission of Mohammad Sarwar and mid-fielder Saqlain has caused some disquiet.

It is debatable whether any international side has improved as Spain under the Dutch coach, Maurits Hendriks, who helped Holland win gold at Sydney. Some of the victories the team recorded in the last one year have been striking, and the list includes the triumph against South Korea in the Champions Challenge in Randburg. The Spaniards almost won the pre-Olympic too in Madrid in March but injuries to key players rendered the task for the Dutch somewhat easier. The expertise and experience of Juan Escarre are the base on which the brilliance of Santi Frexia, Pol Amat and Eduard Tabau is engraved. A medal for Spain appears certain on form, though one will not be foolish enough to hazard a gold for it.

South Korea won a place on the strength of its gold medal in the 2002 Busan Asian Games. Having won the silver at Sydney, the Koreans have proved to be unpredictable in recent years. Their venture into fashioning a young squad proved a disaster in the Champions Challenge forcing the administration to recall the veterans, Song Tae Young and Yew Woon Koon. Britain had to go through many a hiccup at Madrid to become the fifth qualifier. Egypt surprised many beating South Africa in the Pan-African Games in Namibia.

Not a huge problem

Jorge Lombi... Argentina's trump card. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

For the defending champion, the Netherlands, a semi-final berth in Pool B should not be a huge problem. But sceptics do not view the Dutch as the strongest force. The team passed through a troubled phase after a poor show in the European Cup after a spectacular win in the Champions Trophy. The revolt by the seniors against the chief coach, Joost Belaart, impaired the image of the Dutch a bit. The convulsions brought in an Aussie, Terry Walsh, to the job. The Dutch are a seasoned side with an excellent mid-fielder, Jereon Delmee, at the helm. The trump card however is the flicker, Taeke Takema supported by Bram Lomans, although the striking power of Teun di Nooijer, Brouwer brothers, Ronald and Mitthijs, Karol Klaver needs to be acknowledged.

Australia, runner-up of the last World Cup and Champions Trophy, Argentina, winner of the Pan American title, the qualifiers, India and New Zealand should fight for the second place unless the results turn topsy turvy. Chasing the elusive gold for nearly five decades in the Olympics, the Aussies are wondering whether the dream day is set to dawn in Athens. Amazingly, the Aussies look very vulnerable at this point, if the record of performances a few weeks before the Olympics is any indication.

A lot of effort has gone into preparing the squad under the expert training of Barry Dancer. But the Aussies are yet to strike the form that should project them into medal contention. Brent Livermore is a livewire in the mid-field along with Jaime Dwyer and Troy Elder. The frontline of Mike McCann, Mike Brennen and Grant Schubert may pose some threat to the rival defence. A medal for Argentina this time is not a too optimistic prediction. The quality of its showing in the weeks preceding the Games has been extraordinary. The youthful combination under the veteran goalkeeper Pablo Morreira is no easy prey for any team. Players such as Mario Almada, Jorge Lombi, Matias Parades and Rodrigo Vila are competent enough to alter the course of the match anytime.

The Kiwis, who won the gold in 1976 at Montreal, are back into the Olympics after Barcelona where they finished eighth. Phil Burrows, and the veteran of 204 caps, Umesh Parag, the only survivor from the 1992 team, are their best bet. South Africa tumbled into the Olympics when Greece lost its case in the Court of Arbitration pressing for an automatic berth as host. The team finished seventh in the qualifier at Madrid.

The expectation is that penalty corner experts such as Taeke Takema, Florian Kunz, Santi Frexia and Sohail Abbas may dominate the scoring, now that the defenders are prohibited from charging out to disturb the strikers.

How much of hockey aesthetics, as projected by the sub-continent, comes to surface is interesting to watch.

POOL A: Germany, South Korea, Pakistan, Great Britain, Spain, Egypt.

POOL B: Netherlands, Australia, India, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa.

The schedule Men

Aug. 15: Aus v Nzl (11 a.m.); Arg v Rsa (1 a.m.); Kor v Esp (8.30 p.m.); Gbr v Egy (10.30 p.m.); Ger v Pak (9 p.m.); Ned v Ind (11 p.m.).

Aug. 17: Kor v Gbr (11 a.m.); Arg v Aus (1 p.m.); Rsa v Ind (8.30 p.m.); Nzl v Ned (10.30 p.m.); Egy v Pak (9 p.m.); Esp v Ger (11 p.m.).

Aug. 19: Ned v Rsa (11 a.m.); Pak v Kor (1 p.m.); Ger v Egy (8.30 p.m.); Nzl v Arg (10.30 p.m.); Gbr v Esp (9 p.m.); Aus v Ind (11 p.m.).

Aug. 21: Egy v Kor (11 a.m.); Ind v Nzl (1 p.m.); Rsa v Aus (8.30 p.m.); Esp v Pak (10.30 p.m.); Arg v Ned (9 p.m.); Ger v Gbr (11 p.m.).

Aug. 23: Nzl v Rsa (11 a.m.); Esp v Egy (1 p.m.); Pak v Gbr (8.30 p.m.); Ind v Arg (11 p.m.); Kor v Ger (9 p.m.); Aus v Ned (11 p.m.).

Aug. 25: Classfn. 9-12 (11 a.m.); Classfn. 5-8 (8.30 p.m.); Semifinal 1 (9 p.m.); Semifinal 2 (11.30 p.m.).

Aug. 27: Classfn. 7-8 (11 a.m.); Classfn. 5-6 (1.30 p.m.); Classfn. 11-12 (11.30 a.m.); Classfn. 9-10 (2 p.m.); Bronze medal (8.30 p.m.); Final (11 p.m.).

Women

Aug. 14: Ned v Rsa (11 a.m.); Chn v Jpn (1 p.m.); Aus v Ger ( 8.30 p.m.); Arg v Esp (10.30 p.m.).

Aug 16: Jpn v Arg (11 a.m.); Rsa v Aus (1 p.m.); Nzl v Chn (8.30 p.m.); Kor v Ned (10.30 p.m.).

Aug. 18: Chn v Esp (11 a.m.); Ned v Ger (1 p.m.); Rsa v Kor (8.30 p.m.); Jpn v Nzl (10.30 p.m.).

Aug. 20: Kor v Aus (11 a.m.); Nzl v Arg (1 p.m.); Ger v Rsa (8.30 p.m.); Esp v Jpn (10.30 p.m.).

Aug. 22: Ger v Kor (11 a.m.); Esp v Nzl (1 p.m.); Arg v Chn (8.30 p.m.); Aus v Ned (10.30 p.m.).

Aug. 24: Classfn. 5-8 (11 a.m.); Semifinal 1 (8.30 p.m.); Semifinal 2 (11 p.m.).

Aug. 26: Classfn. 7-8 (11 a.m.); Classfn. 5-6 (1.30 p.m.); Classfn. 9-10 (11.30 a.m.); Bronze medal (8.30 p.m.); Final (11 p.m.).

(All times IST).