While 2020 is the big year in terms of the Olympic Games, it is 2019 that sees hopes and dreams realized or shattered.
This is when qualification happens and, for international teams across the world, the next few months are “make or break”. The qualification route starts with the FIH Series Finals, before moving to the continental championships – in the case of PAHF, the Pan American Games – and Olympic qualifying events later in the year.
For five of our continent’s men’s teams, April through to June is all about the FIH Series Finals. Malaysia is playing host to the first of six of these events that comprise the final stages of an inaugural competition that launched with the qualifying Series Open events in 2018.
The global Hockey Series competition has covered all the continents and has offered a chance to nations at all levels of hockey development to experience international competition – with the lure of a place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games as the ultimate prize.
Each of the six Series Finals – three women’s events and three men’s events – will consist of eight teams. These are the best performers in the FIH Series Open events, alongside teams who have pre-qualified courtesy of a higher world ranking.
The top two finishers at each of the Series Finals will qualify to the newly-formed Olympic qualifiers, which take place in October of this year. This might sound like a rather convoluted process but it is one that offers a nation an unparalleled opportunity to upset the rankings and do something amazing – it is a system that paves the way for a moment of sporting magic: and that is the stuff of which sporting legends are made.
PAHF is well represented at the FIH Series Finals in both the men’s and the women’s events but for the purposes of this article, we are looking solely at the men’s events.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Canada and Brazil will be flying the flag for PAHF, with Canada undoubtedly one of the pre-event favorites. Canada will be competing in Pool A against Austria, Wales and Belarus. In the other pool Brazil will face China, Italy and the home favorites Malaysia.
Canada enter the competition at the Bukit Jalil National Hockey Stadium as the highest ranked team – tenth – in the FIH World Rankings. And they have form when it comes to qualifying events. In recent years, the Canada team has qualified for both the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and the 2018 FIH Men’s World Cup so, not unreasonably, the team and its supporters see Tokyo 2020 as a realistic aim.
Head Coach Paul Bundy and his team have enjoyed some great preparation as they competed in the 2019 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia, where they finished fourth, losing out 4-2 to the host team in the bronze medal match.
As a result of participating at that event, the Canadian squad will have become more acclimatized to the heat and conditions they will face in Kuala Lumpur. They will also have been able to gain valuable top flight experience very close to the competition, including gaining insightful information about Malaysia, the other team that are favorites for a top spot finish.
“The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup is an amazing tournament and was fundamental to our preparations for the FIH Series Finals,” says Bundy. “Having the ability to play good teams in a tournament setting, in Malaysia, a month prior to the event, puts us on the front foot moving into the start of the Olympic qualification campaign.
“It gave us the ability to implement our new style of play, expose the broader squad to competition (and selection) and walk through the key processes prior to playing in such an important tournament, in a difficult climate.”
Despite their high ranking and good preparation, Bundy and his squad are staying very grounded when it comes to their chances of winning in Kuala Lumpur. “All the teams are all very competitive and there will be no easy games for any teams. Combine this with heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur, and you can see it will make for a difficult tournament. The teams who are able to manage the heat, who are well conditioned, better prepared and mentally focused will have a big advantage through the pool stages and into the semi-finals and finals.”
Also tackling the humid conditions of Kuala Lumpur will be Brazil, who are currently ranked 27th in the world. Unlike Canada, who qualified by virtue of a World Ranking, Brazil earned their place in the Series Finals with a strong second place finish in the Hockey Series Open event in Santiago, Chile. There, the Samba Boys were runners-up to the host nation, losing only once – to Chile.
While they might be one of the lower-ranked teams, Brazil have taken advantage of their exposure to top flight international hockey at the 2016 Rio Olympics. They play with flair, imagination and a lot of fire-power. At the Hockey Series Open, they found the target 39 times in five matches, with striker Lucas Paixão scoring an impressive 14 field goals and penalty corner specialists Matheus Borges and Joaquin Lopez scoring 15 goals between them.
Also representing PAHF in Kuala Lumpur will be umpires Reinier Diaz Garcia of Cuba, Federico Garcia of Uruguay and Hugo Romero of Paraguay.
While Canada and Brazil are in the final stages of preparation for their forthcoming adventures, three other PAHF men’s teams are just two months away from their own FIH Series Finals challenges.
Heading to Bhubaneswar, India from 6 to 16 of June will be USA (World Ranking: 26) and Mexico (WR:39), while Chile will be competing in Le Touquet, France from 15 to 23 of June. All three teams qualified via the Hockey Series Open events.
For USA and Mexico, the Series Finals will provide a stern test as they will be facing the world number five side India as well as the perennial African continental champions South Africa (WR: 16). Japan (WR:18) are another team that has made huge progress in recent months, winning the ultra-competitive Asian Cup. As hosts, the Samurai are already guaranteed a berth at the 2020 Olympic Games but that will not diminish their competitive approach to the competition.
Europe’s second tier of nations are strong, courtesy of the very competitive EuroHockey Nations Championships, and Poland (WR:21) and Russia (WR:23) are two teams that have a bevy of talented players who will feel this is their time to challenge for an Olympic spot.
If USA and Mexico are poised to feel the heat in India, then Chile (WR:34) face a furnace in France. Ireland (WR:11) and France (WR:15) both have recent World Cup experience, which is invaluable preparation for an important tournament, while Korea (WR:17) defied the world rankings to beat India on shoot-out at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. But Chile are a hugely ambitious and fast-improving nation and they will be looking to emulate their women’s team by overturning higher-ranked rivals and moving up the rankings at the same time.
But if any of our men’s team’s are feeling apprehensive about the challenge ahead, they should take inspiration from the USA men’s experiences in 2017 at the FIH World League Round Two in Trinidad and Tobago.
Recovering from a 2-0 deficit in the pool matches against Chile, USA beat their south American rivals in the shoot-out. USA then faced Trinidad and Tobago in the quarter-finals. They went 2-0 down but fought back to draw the match and again took the victory on shoot-out. They then completed the hat-trick by drawing with Russia and then beating the European side in a marathon shoot-out to take the bronze medal against all the odds and, importantly, against all the higher ranked teams.
Sport loves an underdog and, in Olympic qualification year, any of our PAHF teams could produce a story that grabs hearts and minds in the coming months.
The Series Finals will be covered by all the International Hockey Federation channels, including the FIH website and social media. It will also be available via the FIH.Live broadcasting platform or through the television broadcast partners’ channels.
Here on the PAHF website, we will keep all hockey fans from across the continent up-to-date with our team’s progress towards Olympic qualification.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - April 26 to May 4, 2019
Brazil , Canada
Bhubaneswar, India - June 6-15, 2019
Mexico , USA
Le Touquet, France - June 15-23, 2019