Scott Tupper (CAN), Kate Wright (CAN), Kathleen Sharkey (USA), Camila Caram (CHI)
In two weeks’ time the world will know which 12 men’s and women’s teams will be competing for Olympic glory in Tokyo. Some teams – hosts Japan, plus the winners of the continental championships – know their fate already. In fact, both Japanese teams sealed their places twice, by winning the Asian continental championships and as host nation.

From PAHF, Argentina men and women will be in Tokyo after they won the men’s and women’s Pan American Games hockey competition but up to another four PAHF teams could be joining them depending on the results of the continental qualifiers.

The FIH Olympic Qualifiers are a winner-takes-all, two match competition with a place at the Olympic Games the prize. The 28 teams taking part – 14 men’s teams and 14 women’s teams – are all either winners or runners up in the FIH Series Finals or they are among the top ranked teams in the world who participated in the FIH Pro League.

From PAHF, USA women, Canada men and women, and Chile women are all in the mix, and will be playing for their Olympic places over the final weekend in October or the first weekend in November.

The draw for the matches was done according to position in the rankings and the place the team finished in the FIH Series Finals. As a result, both Canada men and women find themselves up against the Irish.

For Canada men this is a good draw. The Irish men were in the ascendency two years ago. A bronze medal at the 2015 EuroHockey Championships, a rise to ninth in the FIH World Rankings and a first appearance at the Olympics in 108 years when they qualified for Rio 2016, all demonstrated the enormous will to win of the Green Machine.

The past few months however have seen the Ireland team’s star fade. Talismanic goalkeeper David Harte, who has twice been voted FIH Goalkeeper of the Year, has been struck by injury and the team has suffered as a result. They were favourites to win their FIH Series Final event in France, but the team finished second after the host nation struck a rich vein of form and beat them 3-1 in the final. That result means Ireland have to travel to play Canada in Vancouver, which is always going to be a tough ask.

Ireland forward Shane O’Donoghue said of the forthcoming matches against Canada: “People will expect a battle between Canada and ourselves. We are two evenly-matched teams, there is no question about it. We are ready for it but no doubt Canada are as well. You will see a lot of belief in our game. It is a winner-take-all couple of games so we will go in all guns blazing, full of energy, full of belief and full of Irish fighting spirit, as we always have.”

O’Donoghue also admitted that morale in the Ireland camp has been low as the team has failed to live up to high expectations in the wake of their winning ways from 2015-2017. But, he added, a good test series against France has restored some of the team’s confidence ahead of the crucial trip to Canada.

For Canada, the past month has been spent working on fine tuning the performances that saw the team win their FIH Series Final against Malaysia. Head Coach Paul Bundy is hoping his players will feed off the energy from the crowd. “We have an Olympic legacy, he said, and can’t wait to take this opportunity to continue it.”

Speaking to the FIH, veteran striker Scott Tupper said he was expecting an atmosphere akin to some of the top European club sides. “The crowds will be right tight to the pitch, so they are almost right beside you as you take a sideline free hit. It will make for a great atmosphere.”

Both Canada and Ireland competed at the 2016 Olympic Games and both sides will be looking to make back-to-back appearances on the biggest hockey stage.

For Canada women, the two Olympic Qualifier matches will offer an opportunity to make their first Olympic appearance since 1992, when they finished in seventh place. For Ireland, this would be a debut appearance. Ireland’s first place finish in their FIH Series Finals event means they play host to Canada but the Wolf Pack will not see this as a disadvantage, this is a team that travels well.

Since the start of 2018, the Canadian team has poured everything into securing a place in Tokyo. For the past two seasons, all members of the Canadian women’s team have been playing in the Belgium and Dutch club leagues. This has enabled them to get regular high-quality matches and be in one smaller geographical area so that national training camps can be held with relative ease.

It has not been a move lightly taken however. By playing their hockey in Europe, the Canadian athletes have had to leave family, friends behind and, in many cases, careers on hold. Kate Wright, captain of the Canada side, says that winning a place at the Olympics has been the driving force behind this level of sacrifice: “We are so excited for the opportunity to compete and qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. We have a group of very dedicated, resilient and hardworking athletes and we are ready for the challenge. This will mean so much to us and for the future of Canadian field hockey.”

The multi-capped forward says she is expecting the games will be tight as the two teams know each other well. “Ireland is an extremely competitive side and one that we really respect,” she says. “They have achieved some amazing results recently, including a second-place finish at the World Cup last year. We have had the opportunity to travel to Dublin a handful of times and know how supportive their home crowd can be. We are hoping that our friends and family from Canada will be able to make the trip to cheer us on.”

Another national team that has been on its travels to prepare for the biggest two matches of its international history is Chile. The South American side has the chance to become the biggest giant-slayers in the game as they take on the reigning Olympic champions Great Britain.

Chile travel to Great Britain where they will face the team ranked fifth in the world at the Lee Valley Hockey Stadium, a venue that is fast becoming renowned for its packed and vociferous crowds. But Great Britain have the weight of expectation heavily on their shoulders and, with a relatively new squad and a run of poor results behind them, the result is very much in the balance.

Great Britain goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, twice the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year, has already uttered caution against underestimating the team ranked 18th in the world. “Chile are not a team we necessarily know that well, but we have to respect them. They are going to come here very ready. They will be looking at it as, you know, two games and they are on a plane to Tokyo, so they have got a lot to play for.”

Chile captain Camila Caram says that getting the ticket to Tokyo would be a dream come true for her and her team mates but this is a team that is developing apace and with every international competition, the squad is adding to its experience and knowledge. The Diablas are now in a period of intensive training and will arrive in the UK a week ahead of their matches to acclimatise.

“We are trying to be the surprise team in these FIH Qualifiers,” says Caram. “So we are hoping to play our best and try to beat Great Britain. We have been working on our penalty-corners so watch out for them. Great Britain is, of course, a very tough team. We have played only once against them, that was a friendly match. And of course, they are the Olympic champions so it is going to be a really good game and a tough game for us but we will play our way and take it step by step.”

The fourth side to represent PAHF at the Olympic Qualifiers is USA, who face an incredibly tough battle to make their fourth consecutive appearance at an Olympic Games. The past two years have been difficult for head coach Janneke Schopman and her players. They have slid down the rankings to 13th and a poor FIH Pro League season saw them finish in bottom place. They face an Indian side that is brimful of confidence at the moment as they have surged up the rankings to ninth place.

Add to that the fact that the two matches will play in the cauldron of the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and it is clear to see USA has a fight on its hands. India’s captain, Rani, says: “The women’s hockey team has been growing, and in the last couple of months we have won so many tournaments. Recently we won the Tokyo Olympic test event. That gives us lots of confidence and we will carry forward that confidence into the Olympic qualifiers in Bhubaneswar.

“We played USA in the London World Cup [in 2018] and we played a 1-1 draw. But since then our team has improved a lot in structured hockey and in a physical way, so we will try to execute what we have [learned] in the last couple of years. We cannot beat them easily because every team wants to fight for every second to be in the Olympics.”

USA captain Kat Sharkey is staying cool ahead of her team’s travels to India, insisting that the squad is focusing only on the things they can control. “We are training hard; we have been refining our technical skills and our tactics. The stakes in these games are very high and we are just focusing on the controllables. We will be prepared in every way possible to give ourselves the best chance. The Olympics is the ultimate for any athlete in our sport and we will do everything in our power to make sure we are in Tokyo next year.”

The two-match schedule for the Olympic Qualifiers are set out below. All times are local times.

27 October, 14:00 & 28 October 14:00
Canada men v Ireland men - Rutledge Field, Vancouver, Canada.

2 November 19:00 & 3 November 19:10
Ireland women v Canada women – Energia Park, Dublin, Ireland

2 November 14:00 & 3 November 12:00
Great Britain women v Chile women - Lee Valley Hockey Stadium, London, England

1 November 18:00 & 2 November 18:00
India women v USA women - Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar, India.