Thursday, June 21, 2012

In the Spotlight.... Spain Men

In the Spotlight is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today, we feature the Spanish men's national team.
The Basics:
Spain’s results took a dip after the 2008 departure of Dutch maestro Maurits Hendriks who during his tenure led the team to an Olympic silver medal and World Cup bronze, as well as 4 Champions Trophy podium finishes including the team’s first ever title. In the post-Hendriks era, Spain have since finished 5th in the World Cup and 2 Champions Trophies, and hit bottom finishing 6th at the 2011 European continental championships – their worst finish within the continent since 1995. A mere 4 months later however, a virtually identical group of players finished second in last December’s Champions Trophy, their first medal-winning finish in a world level event since the 2008 Olympics. The big question will be whether this silver medal is a fluke or heralds a resurgence of Spanish hockey.

The Road to London:
Spain emerged as the lucky loser in the qualification process for London 2012: having missed out on direct qualification with a dismal 6th place finish in Europe’s 2011 continental tournament, they were the highest ranked team in the world not yet qualified when the South African Olympic Committee decided to forego the ticket their men’s team had won in the continental qualifier and send them into the FIH qualification process instead. The open ticket fell to Spain, greatly relieved to be spared a trip to a Qualifier with its dose of uncertainty and extra expenses.
Players to Watch:
Team captain Santi Freixa is not only one of the world’s top players for his stick skills and powerful game, but is also the epitome of leadership with a limitless passion for the game and unwavering faith in the possibility of success. Known for being highly emotional, Freixa leaves it all out on the field, and has the charisma to pull the rest of his team with him, making the Spanish men another one of the teams you should never celebrate a win against until they’re on the bus home. Joining Freixa in the squad’s prime forward line are temperamental and fierce Edi Tubau and lightning fast Pol Amat, who at 34 years old still simply outruns the vast majority of his opponents.

Dani Martin has been the head coach for the Spanish men for close to 4 years now, having taken on the difficult task of following in the footsteps of the successful Dutchman Maurits Hendriks after the Beijing Olympics. Under Hendriks, Martin served as an assistant for years while also coaching one of Spain’s top clubs, Atlètic Terrassa during that time – a club that brought forward some of Spain’s biggest stars of today, including Santi Freixa, Roc Oliva and Sergi Enrique. 
Spain plays a forward-oriented, fast-paced game, geared towards their world class strikers, but can also rely on a strong and experienced defense around Ramón Alegre, Sergi Enrique and goalkeeper Quico Cortes. With a less organized, more creative brand of hockey than some of their counterparts, the Spaniards are more difficult to predict, and have been known to score impossible goals.

Despite being able to hold their own against the world’s best sides, the Spaniards are prone to a certain inconsistency in their results, as evidenced for example in the 2010 World Cup, where the rogue group stage defeat at the hands of ultimately last placed Pakistan cost them a place in the semifinals and saw them finish in 5th place. Also, while Spain has some good penalty corner flickers, they lack the absolute specialist that several of their opponents have.
Crystal Ball:
Spain is a strong contender for the semi-finals, but it won’t be an easy feat, as Dani Martin recognized in a recent interview: “Australia is one of the most powerful in the world, and a clear rival to get to the semis.  Against Great Britain, the matches are always very open, and I am certain that our encounter will be very intense, but we also have the experience like from the World Cup which reminds us that all teams can take points off us. We are at the Games, and you have to work hard to get into the semis.” The stakes are high for Spain, one of the few countries with only one team in the Games, as after their women’s failure to qualify, funding and resources for the next few years may well depend heavily on their final ranking.