Preview: Women's Olympic Qualifier
The Women’s Hero FIH Road to London Olympic Qualifier starts on Saturday in Delhi, India, in the spectacular Major Dhyan Chand National Hockey Stadium, with 6 teams fighting for a single ticket for the Olympic Games this summer in London. While experienced South Africa and host India are favorites to reach the winner-take-all Final next Saturday, Italy and Canada hope to create some surprises.
This is the first of 3 Olympic Qualifiers, with the other two in Kontich, Belgium (March 17 to 25) and Kakamigahara, Japan (April 25 to May 5). Canada, India, Italy, Poland, South Africa and Ukraine will try to join the nine teams already qualified through the Continental Championships last summer.
South Africa is the top ranked team in this competition (12th in the latest FIH Rankings). They had in theory already qualified for the Olympic Games in London by winning the 2011 African Qualifier, but their Olympic Committee decided that this continental event was not competitive enough and that they needed to confirm through the Olympic Qualifier, forcing this unique situation of a team having to qualify twice for the Olympics.
With an average of 122 Caps, twice as many as India, the South African squad is very experienced. Ten of them have already played in the Olympics. They are led by Marsha MARESCIA, a regular on the FIH Elite Team (2007, 2008 and 2009), and by prolific goal scorer Pietie COETZEE, who came out of retirement hungrier than ever and recently became the highest goal scorer in international hockey, also earning a berth on the 2011 FIH Elite Team.
India is just one spot behind South Africa in the rankings (13th). Their latest international performances have not been convincing, finishing 4th at the 2010 Asian Games (behind China, Korea and Japan) and only 5th at the 2011 Commonwealth Games in the same venue (beating Canada 3-0 in their last game for the 5th-6th place). They have recently lost twice to South Africa in a 4-nation competition in Argentina. They will however benefit from the support of their home crowd, hoping for a remake of the vastly popular Bollywood movie “Chak De India”.
Italy is next in the rankings at 19th. After losing all their matches and finishing last at the European Championships, they have come to Delhi with a rejuvenated team, including only two players with more than 50 Caps and five making their international debut. They might have difficulty repeating their performance at the 2008 Olympic Qualifier in Canada, when they reached the final and challenged Korea for the qualification.
Canada is just behind Italy in the World Rankings (20th). After years of disappointing results, the Canadian squad is on an upward climb, with a good mix of dedicated veterans and talented young players. They finished 4th at the recent Pan American Games in Guadalajara, showing they can raise their game against more decorated opponents like Argentina. Newcomer Brienne Stairs scored six goals in her first international competition and earned a spot on the 2011 Pan American Elite Team, alongside midfielder Katie Baker.
Plagued by the harsh weather in Eastern Europe and financial difficulties preventing travel for better conditions, Ukraine and Poland (ranked 26th and 28th) have struggled to prepare for this competition. Although Poland is lower than Ukraine in the rankings, they fared better at the 2011 European Championship (tier 2) where they finished second and narrowly missed promotion, while Ukraine only finished 5th.
After 6 days of competition, with the ruthless format of the Olympic Qualifier, only one team will earn a berth for London while the other five squads will go home with shattered Olympic dreams.
Action starts on Saturday at the Major Dhyan Chand National Hockey Stadium in Delhi. Opening day will see the top two teams face the lower ranked ones, South Africa against Poland and India against Ukraine, while the match between the two middle ranked teams Italy and Canada will give an indication of their potential.
Saturday February 18 (women)
10h00: Soth Africa vs. Poland
12h00: Italy vs. Canada
18h00: India vs. Ukraine