The unknown quantity

GEORGE BRINK

A GLANCE at the teams in the World Cup throws up a few unknown quantities.

Cuba, Japan, Belgium and South Africa have not had extensive exposure to the International stage, and so it becomes difficult to place them in the context of the best in the World. Of them only South Africa have signalled their form by winning the silver medal at the first Champions Challenge.

After years of isolation the African champions returned to international hockey for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Many regarded their 10th place as an outstanding result. Failing to qualify for the 1998 World Cup losing too many games in the last 10 minutes during the WCQ in Kuala Lumpur, they returned to miss the cut at the Commonwealth Games for the semi-finals. 1999 saw South Africa win the African Cup to qualify for the Olympic Games in Sydney. Then early in 2000 the National Olympic Committee of South Africa (NOCSA) cruelly snatched that dream away saying they would not be,sending the men's team because they lacked representivity (sic) and had no chance of getting a medal.

Under this dark cloud SA had to play in the Africa Cup to qualify for this World Cup. Incredibly, they won the tournament to join the elite.

SAHA threatened NOCSA with the Court of Arbitration for Sport and at a meeting with the IOC, NOCSA promised to look into the matter again. Despite this assurance to the IOC, on their return to South Africa NOCSA appeared to make no effort before announcing their decision was final. The team was devastated and many senior players immediately announced their retirement.

A year out of international competition, a change of coach and a crucial change of mind by some senior players saw SA taking part in the first Champions Challenge by special invitation. This time things were very different and SA won silver, their first major medal ever.

Could South Africa do better in the World Cup? Crucially missing from their CC line up was top international striker Greg Nicol. In all the major events he has played in he has been the leading goalscorer. Out of the CC with a hand injury he is back to his best. A test series against current world leaders Germany has seen SA pushing the best to the limit in Durban - a coastal city with very high humidity and temperatures, very similar to KL! Before the World Cup they played another five Test series against England at the same venue so their preparation against the top nations will be fairly comprehensive.

South Africa may qualify for the Champions Trophy event in Cologne later this year. And this will go a long way to ensuring the debacle of the Sydney Olympics is not repeated at Athens.