Recently I talked about local hockey vs global hockey. Watching the HWL’s in London and Johannesburg I would like to share some of my take-aways from these events. The HWL’s are the qualification for next year’s world cup in Bhubaneswar (Odisha), India. With less than 500 days to go 9 teams have qualified already. But the 4 countries that made both HWL “finals” are Argentina, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Australia could not live up to their ranking. Asian powerhouses India and Pakistan were downright disappointing. Respectively because of an impatient federation (with unrealistic expectations) and political choices interfering with sport.
So my theory, I wanted to talk about, is the countries with the strongest domestic leagues are the only ones capable to manage the transition to a new national team immediately in a new Olympic cycle.

Los Leones

Argentina is the only one among the top nations who has chosen not to (or hardly) renew their team post Rio. They already had the most senior team in Rio when they won the gold and have not bothered to include many new players on their road to Bhubaneswar and Tokyo. They seem to be content to get all they can out of their golden generation who first showed their potential at the Junior World Cup in 2005 (Rotterdam).  A decision that has paid off with a gold medial in Rio and the 1st position in the global ranking. Both in the flawed ranking, as published by the FIH, as well as in the more honest global ranking (click here to read more bout that). They got whipped by Holland in the London HWL “final” last month (1-6). But these guys only really warm up when the stakes are high. After winning the quarter final and securing world cup qualification the edge went off their game. Nobody with a sporting heart likes to lose 6-1 though. But my guess is the Leones still have what it takes to step up their game when it really matters. So watch out for them in Bhubaneswar…
Argentina does not really have a strong domestic league, but most of their players are playing the strong European leagues. That is definitely a big advantage for them.

Oranje

Obviously the orange Dutch have a distinct advantage of playing every week in the undeniably strongest domestic league of the world. It allows for their young talents to play against the world’s best and to train shoulder to shoulder with these guys on a weekly basis. Technically, tactically and physically they have the edge (or should have) on their counterparts in countries without a strong domestic weekly league. Mentally not soo much, because  they’re lucky to live in a part of the world where a lot is handed to them and with a lot of other options to choose from in life (=distraction).
The crowded calendar that comes with such an important home league however is a problem. The difficulties for their national team coach to get his players peaking at the right time are a disadvantage. Because their club teams want them to peak during play off and in EHL for them. This usually happens when other nations are working according to their own planning towards their peak, unhindered by other obligations. This has often been a reason for underperformance in modern hockey times for the Dutch like they did in the 2014 world cup.
But playing tophockey all the time all year round has the advantage to pick from more players capable to adjust faster to the demands of international hockey. That is why, besides a well funded and organised national team programme obviously, the Dutch always succeed in making the switch to a new generation like we have seen in London last month. It was impressive to watch young new talents emerge on the international scene. It is also the fruit of the labour done in the clubs and the domestic league…
However the Dutch should not be cheering too soon, which seems to be the eternal fault of their enthusiastic orange legion of supporters and uninformed press. They have played two games against quality opposition in London last month, both without anything at stake. So let’s not count our chickens just yet… ;)

Honamas

The Germans probably have the least well known knick name for their team, the Honamas. But their recipe for making the transition to a new generation of top players for their team is more important than marketing their national team. The Germans have always been the masters of picking the tournaments where young talent got their first taste of international hockey. They mastered the art of peaking at the right moment. Equally important, they show a strong vision of developing and mentoring both their teams and their coaches, preparing them for the biggest moments.

Like the Dutch they also benefit from a strong domestic league. As well as suffer the same disadvantages that come with this sometimes. Club life and culture grooms their talents which is fine-tuned in their national team programmes where they clearly emphasize the path chosen towards tophockey over the winning or losing in youth events. Sometimes their fascination for indoor hockey gets in the way. But their domestic leagues is where young talents grow and learn from the experienced top players so they are able to adjust to the demands of international hockey quickly when it’s their time. The demands of their domestic league prevented them from performing well at the 2014 world cup, which was a rare exception. But the Germans with thanks to their domestic league with quality club teams and knowledgable coaches have not only mastered money time during a single game. But also the preparation of a new “Mannschaft” towards the big moment on the international scene. Regardless of their result in Johannesburg tomorrow against the Belgian team, they have proven they will be able to handle the transition to a new team and remain among the top in the world.

Red Lions

The new kid on the block among the top nations is the Belgian national team. But it’s not a happy coincidence where they had some luck with a quality generation of players out of the blue like the Argentinean men (just a unsubstantiated opinion). The Belgian men have been working for over 10 years and guess what… It starts with a quality domestic league. Their desire, when missing out on the Athen Games by a couple of seconds, coupled with an talented generation that caught the eye from their Olympic programme, resulted in a plan to work in a more structured way with their national youth teams towards tophockey. The enthusiasm coming out of this programme also resulted in their club teams investing more in quality players from abroad to lift the level of the domestic league. Their young talented players got an entourage of seasoned pro players with a burning desire for topsport and that rubbed off on the youthful talent. Week in and week out they trained and played with players from an international level and learned… That is the big advantage of a top level domestic league. The quality of the Belgian Honour Division grew every year and this not only resulted in their first ever Olympic final in Rio last year. But as we have witnessed these last couple of days from Johannesburg they are among the few countries that managed the transition to a new team smoothly without much loss of quality. Again regardless of their result tomorrow vs the Germans in their HWL “final” they have proven they will continue to be a force to reckon with for years to come… thanks to their strong domestic league !

Strong domestic leagues matter, but…

Is it a coincidence the countries that seem to have managed the transition post Rio the best are also the top 3 domestic leagues in the world? I doubt it… I think its show as pattern! In my “not so humble” opinion there are 5 strong domestic leagues around the globe with a distinct top 3.

The Dutch “hoofdklasse” being the strongest of them all with between 20 and 25 weekly games every year over a period of some 7-8 months and some 9 months of training. A similar set up is found in Belgium where the level of their league, the Honour Division, with thanks to international reinforcements for most clubs, has risen impressively and is getting closer to the hoofdklasse level. The Germans also have a strong league with a slightly different structure because of the distances in their country and their obsession for indoor hockey. They are also still more in an amateur setting on the club level which could slowly be changing with more quality international players in their club teams recently. But they too enjoy a longer season with weekly training and competition games that help develop their young talents. The rest of the European domestic leagues are similar but still stuck in a more amateur setting where the game of hockey is still mostly considered just a game, not a sport to live for… and so their level is substantially lower and the gap between club hockey and international hockey is too big.

The two other domestic leagues I consider to be close enough to the international level for young talents to benefit from are the Indian HIL and the Australian AHL. Both however are too short in time to really impact the growth of young talents in the same way the top 3 domestic leagues manage. So this why you will see these teams without a strong weekly domestic league struggling to get their “new” team in a new Olympic cycle up to par. However for the very same reason they will have more “freedom” to prepare their national teams when the big events come up, not hindered by the calendar restrictions that come with an important and longer running domestic league. Their players and national team staff do not have to manage multiple important moments (or less anyway). Instead they focus on the one event in front of them.

So, yes… strong domestic leagues matter, they make a difference… but they’re not the only way to success on the main stage!

The effect on all of this from the new HPL will remain to be seen. The reason for the birth of this new event is marketing strategies, not so much for sport reasons. But it will have an effect on the sport as well I think. The choice from India of abandoning the HPL before it even started I feel is made for the wrong reasons, it’s a power game. But that also will influence the future of hockey…

Well one thing is for sure… never a dull moment in hockey ;)

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