India are placed in Pool A at the Tokyo Olympics in a group that includes Australia – currently, the top-ranked team in world hockey – face eight-times Olympic gold medallists India, reigning Olympic champions Argentina as well as Oceania rivals New Zealand, Spain, hosts Japan.
Here’s a brief look at each team in Pool A
The Kookaburras are regarded as the most consistently successful Australian sports team over the past two decades and have been ranked amongst the top four nations in the world for more than 30 years. The Olympic champions of 2004 could only manage a sixth-place finish at Rio 2016, but under the guidance of head coach and former Kookaburras striker Colin Batch, the team will start Tokyo 2020 as one of the favourites for gold.
“Being at our best when we need to be is what it’s all about. Our first aim is to qualify for the quarter-finals and we cannot underestimate that,” Batch said.
“We come up against a determined host country first up who will be nicely acclimatised and very eager to perform well in front of their home crowd, so each match generates a different set of circumstances. We’re not looking too far past that first match against Japan,” he added.
One to watch: Eddie Ockenden. One of the undisputed greats of Australian hockey, Eddie Ockenden rarely puts a foot wrong no matter where on the field he is deployed. In March 2020 he became the most capped male player in Australian hockey history, surpassing Jamie Dwyer’s record of 365 appearances.
It has been over 40 years since Indian men claimed the most recent of their incredible eight Olympic hockey gold medals. However, their superb form in recent times makes them contenders to claim a medal at the upcoming event in Tokyo.
The team has claimed victories against nearly all the top teams in world hockey over the past couple of years, with Australian head coach Graham Reid getting the best out of a talented and exceptionally fit collection of athletes. India booked their ticket to Tokyo with two victories over Russia in the 2019 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, winning 4-2 and 7-1 in Bhubaneswar.
“It has not been an easy process to make the final selection of 16 players as there is a lot of quality and ambition in this group of players. The performance levels of all the athletes are at an optimum level and more importantly, they work well together,” coach Graham Reid said.
“They know what it means to represent the country at the Olympics. We are now focussed on training with the same intensity and our goal is to put forward our best performance as a collective unit in Tokyo,” he added.
One to watch: Manpreet Singh. India’s captain is a dynamic midfielder who leads by example. Named FIH Player of the Year in 2019, becoming the first player from India to win the award.
For many years, Argentina’s men were hidden in the long shadow cast by the remarkable achievements of their female counterparts. A bronze medal at the Rabobank Hockey World Cup 2014 in The Hague changed everything, with Los Leones (The Lions) going on to claim Olympic gold – something that even Las Leonas (The Lionesses) have not achieved – at Rio 2016. Can they defend their title in Tokyo?
“We know that we are the last champions, but this tournament is something different. It [is now] five years later, and every team has changed players, changed coaches, changed tactics, changed everything. So, we have to be quiet and go step-by-step, as we did in Rio,” captain Pedro Ibarra said.
One to watch: Lucas Vila. Long considered one of the most naturally gifted attackers in world hockey, Vila has a reputation for scoring spectacular goals and always provides assists for his teammates. Played an instrumental role in their Olympic success in 2016.
Coached by former Black Sticks midfielder Darren Smith, New Zealand – who shocked the world by becoming Olympic champions at Montreal 1976 – are renowned for their tireless teamwork ethic but are also blessed with some exceptional individuals.
Stephen Jenness and Hugo Inglis are both wonderful attacking talents, while veteran defender Shea McAleese and penalty corner expert Kane Russell are consistently excellent performers. New Zealand reached Tokyo with two victories over Korea in the 2019 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, winning 3-2 and 3-0 in Stratford.
“It’s a pretty experienced group but it’s also the first pinnacle event for players like Sam Lane who have previously missed out through injury or Jacob Smith and Nick Ross who have been rewarded for their perseverance. They’ve shown they’re really determined to be there,” coach Darren Smith said.
One to watch: Stephen Jenness. An attacking midfielder with a keen eye for goal, Jenness has been a central figure for the New Zealand team for nearly a decade, earning well over 200 international caps since making his debut in 2011.
Spain’s men have regularly produced sides that are capable of fighting for the biggest honours in the game, a fact proven by five silver medals at Olympic or World Cup level, not to mention two European championships and a Champions Trophy title.
Head coach and former France international Frédéric Soyez – who will step away after Tokyo, being replaced by current Netherlands men’s head coach Max Caldas – has instilled a wonderful work ethic into his team without sacrificing any of the flair that has been the signature of so many Spanish sides in the past.
Spain earned a berth at Tokyo with a hard-fought triumph over France in the 2019 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, coming back from three goals down to draw 3-3 in the first match before edging a 3-2 victory in Match 2 in Valencia.
“Regarding the pool, it’s very different. You have Argentina, but also Australia and New Zealand, who play a little bit [in] the same [way], hockey that is very physical. They go for it all game; they don’t have any down time. In Japan, we don’t know a lot about them. We know that they won the Asian Games a few years ago, so they are going to be very good. We know India. It is always difficult to play them as they are skilful, fast and unpredictable. We have a very open pool, and I am looking forward to playing in it,” said player Marc Salles.
One to watch: Xavi Lleonart. A pacey, skilful attacker with an eye for goal, Lleonart has an uncanny ability to unlock opposition defences.
As the host nation, Japan’s men already had a ticket to Tokyo 2020 before they stepped onto the field at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. Incredibly, at that event they earned an outright berth, claiming a stunning gold medal ahead of four higher-ranked teams in India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Korea. It was an astonishing achievement for the team coached by Dutchman Siegfried Aikman, who will be looking to weave his magic with the team as they target a podium place on home soil.
“I am very excited and cannot wait for the Olympic Games to be played in my country. I feel I am very lucky. I’m very proud about representing my country, especially when singing my national anthem. It will be a very special occasion,” player Manabu Yamashita said.
One to watch: Manabu Yamashita. A high-quality defender who has represented Japan for the past ten years, ‘Yama’ will be determined to enjoy every minute of the home Olympics experience.
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