Pic of Pakistan; John Vino.
(FIH) The first Worldhockey Men’s World Cup Qualifier starts Saturday in Lille, France, with 6 teams fighting for a single ticket for the Hero Honda FIH World Cup 2010 scheduled next March in Delhi, India. While Pakistan are the overwhelming favourites to reach the winner-take-all final next Sunday, host France have prepared well for this event and could create some surprises.
France, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Poland and Russia will be trying to join the nine teams already qualified through the Continental Championships, and the last two teams who will be qualified through Qualifiers 2 and 3, in New Zealand and Argentina, later in November.
Pakistan is the top ranked team in this competition (7th in the FIH World Rankings) and they are the logical favourites. They have never missed a World Cup and have stood four times on the highest step of the podium. With a stunning average of 123 Caps per player and twelve players with World Cup and Olympic experience, they are by far the most seasoned team! If Pakistan do not qualify for the 2010 World Cup, the news would shake the hockey world as much as the non-qualification of India for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
On the other hand, since their last honours in 1994, they have slid away from the podiums and have had to battle to be considered a top contender again. In Beijing, they produced a lacklustre performance, finishing only 8th, and, at the recent Asia Cup, they lost in the final to Korea.
Coach Shahid ALI KHAN has called back legendary penalty-corner specialist Sohail ABBAS who, at 34 and with 273 Caps to his name, will aim at participating in his... 4th World Cup, since his debut in 1998 in Utrecht.
Next in the FIH World Ranking is Japan (14th). They came very close to qualifying for the 2008 Olympic Games, but were unlucky that Germany (World Cup holders and future Olympic Champions) were drawn in the same Qualifier (in Kakamigahara) after they finished a surprising 4th place at the Euro competition in Manchester.
This seemed to negatively affect the Japanese team progression, and they since have had very modest results, including a very disappointing 6th place at the Asia Cup and a 5th place at the recent Champions Challenge II, behind Poland (1st) and France (3rd), who are contenders in the Lille Qualifier. Japan will line-up in Lille as the youngest of the six teams, with an average experience of only 25 Caps and two international rookies.
France is not far behind Japan in the FIH World Rankings (17th) and have worked hard to prepare for this event at home. They openly expect to reach the final next Sunday, and then hope that the home crowd will be enough of a factor on the last day to further upset the hierarchy in the ruthless winner-take-all Final!
Coach Scott GOODHEART has put his team through an intense series of preparation matches. They finished a credible 6th at the 2009 Euro Hockey Championship, keeping their spot in the Elite category for the next European competition, and a respectable 3rd at the recent Champions Challenge II in Ireland, after beating Russia (5-3) but losing to Poland (1-3), both participants in Lille. Scott GOODHEART has selected a good mix of youth and experience. Behind veterans Frédéric SOYEZ and Mathieu DURCHON, the average number of Caps is 50 and only three players have played less than 10 international games.
Poland could very well be the dark horse in this competition. Ranked 22nd in the world, their recent results have been inconsistent. They had a superb win at the recent Champions Challenge II in Ireland, in front of 3 of the other contenders in the Lille Qualifiers (France, Japan and Russia), but soon after finished only 8th (and last) at the 2009 Euro Hockey Championship, sadly relegating them down to the European Trophy next time around.
They will line-up the oldest team in Lille (average age of 25.5) with plenty of experience despite their three international rookies. Four players were at the 2002 World Cup and eight were involved in the EHL recently with the two Poznan teams, including penalty-corner expert Tomasz DUTKIEWICZ, the charismatic, tough tackling defender who has a habit of scoring important goals for club and country, and was named Player of the Tournament at the Champions Challenge II.
The Polish players are usually extremely fit and, on a good day, can surprise any team. Their opening day match against host France could very well be a key match in the competition!
Russia, ranked just behind Poland in the World Rankings (23rd) is also another enigma for the opposition, producing irregular results but often performing well when it counts. They finished a modest 6th at the Champions Challenge II, but 2nd at the EuroHockey Trophy, winning their promotion to the top tier next time around.
At the 2008 Olympic Qualifier in Chile, they were called at the last minute to replace Bangladesh. They arrived with low expectations, having just finished their indoor season in the rough Russian winter, but, despite the intense Chilean heat and their abysmal world ranking (45th at the time), they managed to transfer their strong indoor experience to the larger field, beating the host team in a crucial game and cruising to a surprising 3rd place!
They arrive in Lille with a fairly young team, and we will need to wait for their first game against Japan to get an idea of what they are capable of producing.
Originally a reserve country, Italy were called upon after the surprise withdrawal of Egypt (ranked 21st in the world). They only finished a modest 7th at the recent EuroHockey Trophy and are coming to Lille with a very inexperienced team. Twelve players have ten Caps or less, including a total of only 4 Caps between their two goal-keepers.
The action gets underway on Saturday October 31 at the Lille Metropole Hockey Club in Lambersart. In theory, this opening day should see a predictable victory for favourites Pakistan against Italy, but the other two games, Japan vs. Russia, followed by France vs. Poland, could dictate the momentum for the rest of the competition for these four teams.