The Dutch confirm their stature

EVENTFUL in more ways than one, the pre-Olympic competition at Madrid will remain etched in memory not merely for identifying the hockey qualifiers for Athens but for the devastating serial bombings in Railway stations that killed over 200 people on March 11.

S. THYAGARAJAN

EVENTFUL in more ways than one, the pre-Olympic competition at Madrid will remain etched in memory not merely for identifying the hockey qualifiers for Athens but for the devastating serial bombings in Railway stations that killed over 200 people on March 11. Traumatic though the experience was for many, the event went unhindered in the last three days when the nation was mourning the dead.

The Netherlands squad which emerged triumphant in the 12-team competition. -- Pic. JEROEN VAN BERGEN-

That the winner, the Netherlands, had to be spotted from a golden goal, which provided an enchanting finale to the competition, underlined the intensity of the combats amidst dreadful weather of rain, snow, chilly winds, and single digit day temperatures. The Dutch team's triumph confirmed its stature as the Olympic champion. It will aim for a hat-trick in Athens after having won the gold in Atlanta and Sydney.

The Netherlands was the only unconquered squad in the 12-team competition fashioned to configure the qualifiers for the Athens Games. It won six of the seven encounters, drawing the pool tie with Spain, which was widely projected as competent enough to puncture the victory sequence of the Dutch. Whether in defence, attack or in exemplary midfield work the strength and system of the Dutch were well defined.

No one symbolised the spirit and style of the Dutch better than the skipper, Jeroen Delmee. A veteran of many a battle, Delmee controlled the midfield with commendable adeptness and authority. He was flawless in the execution of free hits which were angled perfectly to create the opening for the attack. It goes without saying that the strikers, Teun di Nooijer and Ronald Brouwer, relished every moment of their skipper's uncanny ability to serve them. On the left, Piet Geeris was an apt foil to Delmee with the deep defence of Taeke Takema and Bram Lomans leaving nothing to chance.

Ronald Brouwer (third from left), who scored the golden goal for The Netherlands is being joined by his team-mates, after the final against Spain. Pic. AFP-

For the connoisseur, Teun di Nooijer, acknowledged as the finest striker in contemporary hockey, represents the best of frontline artistry. A blend of stickwork and speed makes this blond striker a scourge for any defence. He netted five goals, but each was a class by itself. The crowning piece however was the equaliser he obtained against Spain in the final. Another Dutch star was Ronald Brouwer, who produced a stunner of a backhander for the golden goal. In a nutshell, a coach like Terry Walsh must be twice blessed to have such a string of motivated and methodical players under his charge.

It is not easy to say whether Spain would have finished on top if not plagued by injuries. Penalty striker, Xavier Ribas, and the ebullient forward, Eduard Tubau, had to be sidelined for the final. That, in some estimate, had weakened Spain. Possibly, this was right. In all the matches, Spain displayed a rare charm of combination and individual bravura mirrored by Pol Amat, Santi Freixa and Tubau. They were outstanding in their frontline work supported in the midfield by Juan Escarre, who also was in the list of injured before the start. Rodrigo Garza in defence and Victor Sojo in the midfield contributed immensely to elevate the quality, which was transparent in the way Spain conquered Pakistan in the semi-final, or even in the recovery made to share points with the Netherlands in the pool match.

Neither Pakistan nor India, which made the semi-finals, filled the heart. There was something inadequate in the approach of both. At least for Pakistan, Sohail Abbas proved that he is a tower of strength, slamming as many as nine goals to lead the table. But the usual efficiency in midfield work, where Waseem Ahmed was injured, and in the attack was missing. Only Nadeem Ahmed and Rehan Bhatt strove hard to push themselves.

India had a poor start against Belgium, messed up things with Malaysia and slumped to Pakistan twice. There were genuine fears whether the team would make it to Athens. Victory against New Zealand and Canada, after a really tough struggle, ensured the berth. But on the whole the team's performance was unpredictable, clumsy, flippant and unconvincing.

A few of the Spanish players are delighted over their entry into the semi-finals. Despite being plagued by injuries Spain went on to take the silver. - Pic. AFP-

Consistency was a casuality. When the defence played well, the frontline fumbled and vice versa. Imagine a team leading 5-0 after half-time and finishing at 6-4 against Canada.

Maybe, the squad was a talented bunch, in which Deepak Thakur and Gagan Ajit Singh accounted for 11 of the 21 goals scored, but it never worked as a well knit unit. Deepak was the top scorer for field goals with six. Arjun Halappa improved in the final stages. In the midfield, almost everyone was unsure of his work.

Pakistan's Shakeel Abbasi (left) tries to intercept India's Ignace Tirkey in the match for third place. Pakistan won 4-2. -- Pic. AFP-

True, Dilip Tirkey and Kanwalpreet Singh worked hard but they committed too many errors. Goal-keeper Devesh Chauhan was in poor form in the initial matches till the situation became desperate.

Whatever be the explanations of the coach, Rajinder Singh, a critical review of every player is mandatory before finalising the squad for the Olympics. In the form seen at Madrid, the team is unlikely to finish within the top eight at Athens. This may sound alarming but the ground realities prompt such an assessment.

Great Britain staged a remarkable comeback after slipping up badly. The 6-0 victory against South Africa brought it back into contention. Barry Middleton and Danny Hall assisted well in the deep defence by Bret Gerrad gave GB several interesting and rewarding moments. New Zealand was expected to finish higher, even in the semi-final, after the three successive victories. The defeat against India disturbed the Kiwi rhythm. Phil Burrows, Hayden Shaw and Ryan Archibald figured prominently for the Kiwis.

India's Gagan Ajit Singh (right) clashes with Canadian goal-keeper Michael Mahood in the Pool `B' match which India won 6-4. -- Pic. AFP-

Of the rest, Belgium was unlucky, despite giving a plucky performance in every game. Seconds before the hooter, it lost the fight for the seventh place, and succumbed to South Africa in the tie-breaker. Poland, Malaysia and Canada, which figured at Sydney, will be absent in Athens.

It is a pity that Malaysia, which has a well structured administration and programmes should be out of the Olympics. The team had prepared well for the event for over a year and half under the meticulous care of the German coach, Paul Lissek, but fell at the last hurdle against Belgium.

As in any competition, the subject of supervision, came to be debated at some length by the coaches.

There were complaints of lack of uniformity in interpretation, a view which the FIH and its umpiring committee should focus upon.

The event was well organised in every sense of the term. The Royal Spanish Hockey Federation has acquired enough expertise in staging a big event long before it is to host the women's World Cup in 2006.

Pool `A': The Netherlands beat South Africa 5-1; beat Great Britain 3-0; drew Spain 2-2; beat Poland 3-0; beat Japan 9-3; Spain beat Japan 6-1; beat South Africa 2-1; beat Great Britain 2-1; beat Poland 6-0; Great Britain lost to Poland 1-2; beat Japan 1-0; beat South Africa 6-0; South Africa beat Poland 6-0; beat Japan 2-1; Poland drew Japan 4-4.

Pool `B': Pakistan beat Canada 4-2; beat Belgium 2-0; beat India 5-3; drew Malaysia 0-0; beat New Zealand 4-2; India drew Belgium 1-1; beat Malaysia 5-3; beat New Zealand 2-0; beat Canada 6-4; New Zealand beat Malaysia 1-0; beat Canada 4-2; drew with Belgium 2-2; Belgium drew Canada 2-2; beat Malaysia 2-1; Malaysia beat Canada 3-2.

Points table: Read under as played, won, drawn, lost, goals for, goals against, points.

Pool `A': The Netherlands 5-4-1-0-23-6-13; Spain 5-4-1-0-18-5-13; Great Britain 5-2-0-3-9-7-6; South Africa 5-2-0-3-10-14-6; Poland 5-1-1-3-6-21-4; Japan 5-0-1-4-9-22-1.

Pool `B': Pakistan 5-4-1-0-15-6-13; India 5-3-1-1-17-13-10; New Zealand 5-2-1-2-8-10-7; Belgium 5-1-3-1-7-8-6; Malaysia 5-1-1-3-7-10-4; Canada 5-0-1-4-12-19-1.

Classification matches: 5-8: Great Britain beat Belgium 2-1; New Zealand beat South Africa 4-2. 9-12: Poland beat Canada 2-1; Malaysia beat Japan 3-2. 5-6: Great Britain beat New Zealand 3-2. 7-8: South Africa beat Belgium 2-2 (TB 3-3, SD-1-0). 9-10: Poland beat Malaysia 4-2. 11-12: Canada beat Japan 3-2.

Semi-finals: The Netherlands beat India 4-2; Spain beat Pakistan 3-2; For third place: Pakistan beat India 4-2.

Final: The Netherlands beat Spain 2-1 (1-1, golden goal 1-0).

Final positions: 1. Netherlands, 2. Spain, 3. Pakistan, 4. India, 5. Great Britain, 6. New Zealand, 7. South Africa, 8. Belgium, 9. Poland, 10. Malaysia, 11. Canada, 12. Japan.

Olympics qualifiers (12 teams): Continental champions: Germany (Europe), Argentina (America), South Korea (Asia), Australia (Oceania) and Egypt (Africa); From Madrid: The Netherlands, Spain, Pakistan, India, Great Britain and New Zealand. 12th team: South Africa/Greece.