Over two weekends of frenetic hockey action the final places for the men’s and women’s hockey competitions at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were decided.
As was to be expected when so much is at stake there was high drama, heartbreak, excitement, joy, and no little controversy.
The format for qualification was new. The teams played each other in a two-match series played on consecutive days. In effect, it was a match of 120 minutes. The matches were played at the home of the higher ranked team. The aggregate score decided the winner, with a shoot-out if the scores remained level by the end of the second game.
Four teams from our region were involved, Canada men and women, USA women and Chile women. History will record that, of those four teams, only Canada men progressed through to the Olympic Games, but that bald fact hides the incredible drama that the teams went through during those two weekends of hockey action.
For Canada men, a visit from Ireland was always going to be a tough fixture. The two teams are close in the world rankings (Canada 10th, Ireland 13th), and they play a similar style of uncompromising, attacking hockey. They are also two nations whose continued support from the national association often comes down to moments such as these.
The first match went the way of Ireland. The Green Machine, as they are known, took the lead early on but then the two teams matched each other goal for goal until the last 10 minutes of the game. The visitors then put their collective foot on the accelerator and scored twice through Sean Murray and Shane O’Donoghue to take a 5-3 lead.
In a pertinent reminder to everyone involved in this event, Jonathan Bell of Ireland, speaking after the game said: “It was a good first half performance but that was all it was.”
While the 3-5 result was exciting, the crowds who flocked to Rutledge Field for the second match were in for even more of a roller-coaster. Canada’s hopes of reaching the Olympics for the second consecutive edition looked to have been dealt a serious blow when Ireland scored in the sixth minute to take a 6-3 aggregate lead, but what happened next was the stuff of dreams – or nightmares if you were Irish.
Gordon Johnston and Oliver Scholfield took the score to 2-1 on the day (5-6 on aggregate) and then, with just a few seconds on the clock Jamie Wallace burst into the Ireland circle. His run was ended when he was knocked from the ball by Ireland’s Lee Cole. The whistle for full-time blew but Canada had already signalled a referral. The decision went to the video umpire, who awarded a penalty stroke for the foul.
The uproar from the Irish team as they protested the decision all added to the tension of the moment. A person with an extraordinarily calm temperament was needed in that moment, and so up stepped captain Scott Tupper. In the most pressurised of circumstances, Tupper slammed the ball home and sent his team into the shoot-out.
Still Ireland held the upper hand as they took a 3-1 lead in the shoot-out but then Jamie Wallace and Adam Froese brought the shoot-out scores to 3-3. A sudden death situation followed and again, it was Froese who scored, sending Canada to Tokyo.
Speaking after the game, Canada’s head coach Paul Bundy said: “The biggest priority for us was to double qualify (following Canada’s participation in the 2016 Olympic Games) because of the legacy of those alumni that were around the pitch today and the young kids out there that can also see our sport on the Olympic scene.
“(The team) give me so many grey hairs but I had no doubt that we would play much better today and we did. We executed the game plan and we got into a shootout and we know David (Carter) is great in shootouts. That dream and that vision we had four years ago just continues.”
An emotional Scott Tupper added his own thoughts: “It's unbelievable. No real words for it. It's amazing. Obviously, we weren't in the best spot after yesterday. We were feeling pretty down. You never know what's going to happen. For the guys to perform in the shootout is unbelievable. This is surreal."
In an almost mirror image of the men’s result, Canada women’s match in Dublin against the women of Ireland saw the visiting side laid out on the pitch in agony and despair after their Olympic dreams were snatched away through the cruel medium of the shoot-out.
The game itself was played on a portable pitch in Dublin and both teams had to contend with horrendous weather conditions for the first game as the rain poured down throughout the fixture. But both the pitch and the teams held firm – in fact, there are probably few teams in the world better equipped to deal with heavy rain than these two protagonists – and the first match was a feisty and busy 0-0 draw.
Despite a disparity in world rankings (Ireland are ranked 8th and Canada 15th), there continued to be nothing to separate the two teams over 120 minutes of pitch time. No goals were scored and, if truth be told, neither team much looked like scoring. Amanda Woodcroft and Sara McManus deserve a mention because of their outstanding contributions to the defence in both games. Woodcroft in particular was a thorn in the Irish attack’s side as she continuously managed to break down everything the Green Army could throw her way.
And so the game went to the dreaded shoot-out.
Canada shot into a 3-1 lead as Stephanie Norlander, Amanda Woodcroft and Sara McManus (penalty stroke after a foul on Kate Wright) all scored. The next Canadian to step up was Brienne Stairs, but the usually infallible Stairs was unable to get past Ayeisha McFerran in the Ireland goal. Shanlee Johnston also missed and, with Ireland scoring from the next two attempts, the game went to sudden death. The impetus has shifted the way of the home side and just like that the dream was over: Woodcroft missed her second shoot-out attempt and Ireland’s Roisin Upton made amends for her earlier miss to send Ireland to Tokyo for the first time in the nation’s history.
Reflecting back on the result a week later, Canada’s captain Kate Wright says: “It is pretty difficult to put into words how I am feeling. We were completely devastated after the games in Ireland. We were so close to achieving our dreams and I don’t think I will ever get over that. Feelings tend to come in waves – disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness – it seems to all be there. We worked so hard to get to where we are today and to have qualified for the Olympics would have been truly unbelievable and with every ounce of my being I believed we could do it. As I reflect on this year, I am extremely proud of my team. Not many people would have been able to do what we did this year.”
For Canada women, the past two years have been focused on reaching the Olympic Games, with the team moving en bloc to Belgium in Europe to train and play as full-time athletes. That sort of commitment is not sustainable and so the next few weeks will see a lot of soul searching among the players, as they ask themselves if they want to continue to put their lives on hold.
As someone who has been in the squad for 13 years, Kate Wright knows the level of sacrifice her players have made: “We have had to fundraise, to create a WNT Business and Partnership Club, find a jersey sponsor, and pay out of pocket for the program to live this year, all while moving across the world to play in Europe. We have done it all on our own.
“As a team, we can look back and be proud knowing we gave it our all. It is hard to believe that a two game series between eighth ranked Ireland and 15th ranked Canada ended in a 0-0 aggregate score for both teams. We competed, we left everything we had out there and we showed the world the potential of the Canadian Women’s Field Hockey team. It seems as if we were just missing a bit of luck.”
Chile arrived in London with hopes of causing a huge upset as they faced the reigning Olympic champions Great Britain. A goalless first half gave the South American team a lot of confidence but Great Britain gradually made in-roads into the Chile circle and by the time the final whistle blew at the end of the first game, Great Britain had a solid, if unremarkable, 3-0 lead.
The second day saw Chile continue to take the game to Great Britain and a 2-1 scoreline at full time was a fair result for the Diablas, who had shown moments of real class but at other times had been out manoeuvred by the highly experienced Great Britain team. The aggregate 5-1 scoreline may have been greater but for the excellence of Claudia Schuler in the Chile goal. Chile’s own goal came from Fernanda Villagran, who scored from a corner.
Ahead of the game, Chile’s head coach Sergio Vigil had spoken of his player’s excitement at the prospect of sharing the stage with a top ranked team such as Great Britain. When it came down to it, the Chile team performed well but there was still a big difference in the level of intensity during the match between the two sides. For large periods of both games Great Britain were in possession and their patient build-up was perhaps the main difference. With the Chile players spending valuable energy chasing the ball, there was little left in reserve to set up their own attacks.
Camila Caram, Chile’s hard-working captain was at the heart of much of the action and she had this to say about the matches: “We knew the games against Great Britain would be very tough. We gave our best at times, but we are still lacking the skills to be able to cope with the pressure big teams put upon us. Great Britain is a very physical team, and they are very aggressive in the ‘D’. We worked well on our defence, but we failed to have strength in our attacks. And short corners were our weapon, but they found a way to defend them well.
“Losing against the Olympic Champions 3-0 and 2-1, shows us that we aren't that far away. At times we played very good hockey, but it's not enough to show it at times, we need to keep up the whole 60 minutes.”
USA will see the past two years as a period that is best moved on from. Their slide down the world rankings to 13th – their lowest position since 2010 – mean they had to travel to India to play their Olympic Qualifier. The temperature, the climate and the crowds are all factors that have flawed teams visiting the hockey-mad nation. Ahead of the matches Janneje Schopman had done her home work. She had spoken at length to the USA men’s squad who had competed in Bhubaneswar in the FIH Series Finals in June. A call had also been made to Netherlands coach Max Caldas, whose team has played in India many times before.
The major stumbling block however was a lack of knowledge about Asia hockey. “Typically, we don't play Asian countries often,” said Schopman. “Obviously, everybody watches videos (of the opposition) but the actual experience of playing an Asian team is challenging and you kind of want to experience that. We have a lot of players who have never played India. We have tried to prepare them the best we can.”
The lack of experience against an Asian team showed in the first match as India weathered a storm of attacking play in which USA should have scored at least three goals before India scored five goals of their own. The USA scored one goal to go into day two needing at least five goals to win.
That USA came so close to hitting their target in the second game is a measure of how well the team can play. By half time USA were 4-0 up on the day and 5-5 on aggregate. Lessons from the previous day should have taught them not to let India have a sniff of a goal though, because in the 48th minute, as USA were temporarily down to 10 after Alyssa Manley was shown a yellow card, India’s captain, Rani picked up a ball in the USA circle and smashed it home. The host nation, having inched ahead again, shut the door for the remaining 22 minutes and USA found themselves with no Olympic berth for the first time since 2004.
Just what these results means for the teams is difficult to say right now. For Chile and Canada, who do not have the prospect of the Pro League ahead of them – as USA do – this next 12 months will be a lean time when it comes to international competition. Camila Caram sums up the situation. “Being out of the Olympics means that you don't get to compete at all that year. It's harsh, because all the top teams will be competing in the Pro League, and then they will have all the preparation for the Olympics, so they will get lots and lots of test matches. But for the teams that don't qualify for the Olympics, and don't participate in the Pro League, they will inevitably lose momentum in the preparation they have been building.
“Us [Chile] and Canada are completely amateur teams. We have to live a double life, combining work, play, studying and training. That makes it very tough to compete with the top teams whose athletes are professional. So when an amateur team plays against a professional one and only loses by one or two goals, that’s a great achievement.”