This weekend the last Champions Trophy ever (read more about this here) will get underway. The Rabobank Hockey Champions Trophy (hashtag #HCT2018 for social media) opens wil the ever so special India vs Pakistan. Probably the most talked about rivalry in our game of hockey.
India vs Pakistan
Once great nations in the world of hockey, sure medallists in every tournament. However these days are gone, long gone… None of the current generation of players were even born when Asia ruled the world of hockey. In these countries it’s often the players from those forgotten days (stirred on by media) who still think if only they would play today as they did back then the glory days would return. That won’t happen…
India has made considerable progress with the help of the wonderful HIL, the knowledgeable Roelant Oltmans at the helm for many years (instead of the usual couple of months) and… some extraordinary efforts from the FIH who assigned several high profile events to India thus ensuring them of extra (undeserved) global ranking points in return for the promise of cash and an increasing TV audience.
Pakistan has less money to throw around and until safety is no longer an issue the will have major difficulties getting international level hockey back in their country in whatever shape or form. But they too get some extraordinary support from the FIH, hoping to remain a truly global sport, when for example they were chosen to participate in the Hockey Pro League starting in 2019. They do not meet any of the FIH criteria but were the desired opponent for India and their media (=sponsors) from when Batra’s India was still in the HPL. Oh well, it is what it is and we do enjoy the presence of both India and Pakistan on the global stage for multiple reasons. On field spectacle, like hopefully during the opening game at this Champions Trophy for one…
The world’s 4 best nations + 2 outsiders at this Champions Trophy
Predictions will be tough for this edition of the Champions Trophy. The global ranking is not much help since it is a flawed ranking and we’re still waiting for the FIH to restore it to a fair and honest world ranking. Read my opinion piece from 2013 (!) where I already predicted the rise of the Argentina, Belgium and the end of the Champions Trophy.
None the less I do think world the number 1 Australia can be considered the favourites and Pakistan (lowest world ranking of the participating countries) will most likely end up last. But let me give it a shot:
The Kookaburras have been the uncontested best in the world for many years, even though they were less successful in recent Olympics. However this Australia has seen an extraordinary generation of players dropping away since their last feat when they were unbeatable at the World Cup in 2014. De Young, Hammond, Dwyer and especially Mark Knowles are not the kind of players you replace easily.
The experienced coach Colin Batch has started rebuilding his Kookaburras after a disappointing Rio 2016 and if the test series earlier this year in Australia vs the Netherlands are any indication of what’s to come they remain the team to beat. Not only for this Champions Trophy but also for the World Cup in India in December.
The biggest advantage for Australia is they have the means to compete at the highest level but they also have the luxury of time to prepare. When their biggest competitors (NED, BEL, GER) also have their domestic leagues to consider. For this Champions Trophy they are here at full strength. It could make the difference…
To be honest I think Belgium has more or less the same chances for winning this Champions Trophy as the Aussies. Their team has matured, reached it’s share of major finals in recent years (= necessary experience) and are hungry for their first gold medal.
They too are at full strength, missing only Stockbroeckx from their usual starting line up. But unlike Australia they did not enjoy the luxury of time in preparing for the major international events. Their players hardly had any rest after peaking in their domestic league and the EHL, so maybe they will be less “fresh & hungry” compared to the Aussies. Some important players return from injuries and end-of-season-fatigue. That is the only reason why I think Australia has the edge going in this event.
But with Van Asch in goal, a defence lead by Van Doren, an absolutely extraordinary midfield with Dohmen & Gougnard and young guns Wegnez & Kina among others and some magician strikers such as Briels and Van Aubel they have got the team to go for gold.
Similar to Belgium and Australia I think the Netherlands have more or less similar odds for winning this Champions Trophy. They will be the team showing the least of their cards for the World Cup in December during this event. Missing two important defenders with de Wijn and especially drag flick legend van der Weerden, as well as Billy Bakker in midfield makes a difference. Even for a country with that much talent knocking at the door.
But if the axis of your team consist of players such as Baart, van Ass and Pruyser and you’ve got the likes of Kemperman and Verga and Brinkman for game changers, you’re a contender no matter what. And they’ve got the home advantage… So for gold I think they are right up there with Belgium and Australia.
India will play it’s first major event with an Indian coach after many years of several foreign coaches. Will it be a factor for them remains to be seen. If India wants to keep rising the ranks as they did these last years under the guidance of Oltmans they will need to bring back the HIL in 2019 after the World Cup. If they manage to strike a deal with the FIH to guarantee them a reasonable window in the calendar each year of course.
India has set his eyes on Olympic qualification through their continental championship later this year and on the World Cup in front of a home crowd. These will be the major targets for them. But since their players are not hindered by any domestic league and are able to focus for 100% on their national team only they might be able to manage multiple peaks this year.
Their global ranking at this time is somewhat flattered as explained above but still on a good day they could surprise any of the big nations. In men’s hockey the competition is tough, any of the top 10 nations has a chance of beating any other country. Still logic would see them end up 4th or 5th in this Champions Trophy, since the top 3 nations are still out of reach if they perform as expected.
Argentina is stronger compared to India today in my opinion. However the olympic champion has switched coaches since Rio. I do think the former coach, Retegui, was a factor in their recent rise in the ranking. Will they be able to do just as well with a new coach remains to be seen. Of course the players play the game, not the coach… but still.
Another reason why I do not think they will perform to the best of their abilities is their focus will also be on the World Cup in December. This is a group of older (experienced) players who will be able to turn on the heat when it matters most but they will struggle with the format of this Champions Trophy where every game counts. Plus they will also have several players who only weeks ago were still involved in several European domestic leagues without much time together.
That’s why I think Argentina will be a team to be reckoned with in December in Bhubaneswar, but less next week in Breda. But if Peillat is on fire… who knows.
Oltmans has a track record like no other coach in modern day hockey. Olympic and World Cup titles with the Netherlands in the past and he was instrumental in the rise of India these last years managing to stay on as either coach or technical director for several years. Which in itself is already remarkable considering the history of India.
Recently he returned to Pakistan who have been given a last straw to hold on to international top hockey by the FIH when they included them in the HPL. Oltmans has got the experience and patience needed to turn the tides for Pakistan. But they do not have the same trump cards India was able to play, so the challenge is a bigger one for Pakistan.
None the less, they’ve got some remarkable players. Two of them have been gaining valuable experience these last years in the Duch hoofdklasse with Oranje Zwart, nowadays Oranje Rood. If Rizwan (sr), an outstanding striker and Rashid, one of the world’s best defenders, can manage to pass on their experience they might still surprise us. I doubt this will be the case next week in Breda, but who knows… Sport is a guarantee for surprises.
Obviously the place to watch the Champions Trophy next week is live in the stands at Breda. But if you can’t make it to the Netherlands you should be able to see it al on TV or the FIH YouTube channel. Click here for all info on where to watch depending upon the country you live in.
May the best team win ;)