If a majority of team coaches believe that there are at least half-a-dozen sides capable of winning the 12th men’s Hockey World Cup beginning in New Delhi Sunday, then it is not just about playing safe, but being realistic.
Going by the track record of the main contenders, the tournament is unlikely to witness a major shake up at the top with Germany, Australia and the Netherlands being the top three contenders.
The assessment is based on the performance of the three countries in the last four years, since the last World Cup held at the Warsteiner Hockey Park, Mönchengladbach, Germany, and in the subsequent major events like the Champions Trophy and the continental championships.
Relative strengths and weaknesses of the three main contenders:
Germany: Holders Germany have brought a comparatively inexperienced side with just three from their successful 2006 campaign in the current squad. Among those missing is striker Christopher Zeller whose goals fetched the title in 2006 and also the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
One suspects that the German focus is more on the 2012 Olympics by which time the current set would have gained in international experience and maturity, though the runner-up finish at the 2009 Champions Trophy points to a team that could yet pull off another coup to make Germany the only team to win the Cup three times in a row.
Always in the top four at the World Cup since 1973, Germany’s trademark is their efficiency rather than aesthetics. Strong on basics, the Germans play “muscular hockey”, often using their bodies as a second tackling option. They have converted set-piece play, be it penalty corners or from dead-ball situations, into a fine art. At the core of their game plan is the discipline that they showed against Australia in two consecutive Cup finals in 2002 and 2006.
Modern hockey is all about performance on the day, but one can count on Germany to sustain a level of play that is marked not so much by the express pace of the Aussies and the Dutch, as precision to the point of being robotic, be it in the attack or while defending.
Australia: In contrast, the Aussies thrive on speed, be it ball rotation or counter-attacks, using the width of the field to the maximum. They have some quality sprinters up front to outrun the defenders and a special ability to score from virtually any angle once inside the circle. Slick passing and clever use of space make the Aussies a side to behold when in full flow like they were in winning the 2009 Champions Trophy.
The current team boasts of enviable balance, talent and loads of skill both in defence and attack, but the fact that they have won just one gold medal at both Olympics and World Cup reflect an inherent flaw in their mental toughness to win the big matches on the big stage. In the previous two World Cups, Aussies looked the best side and yet, came away with silvers. Same was the case in Beijing in 2008 where they managed only a bronze after promising a lot but losing to Spain in the semi-finals.
Nevertheless, the Kookaburras have it in them to win the Cup this time considering that they appear stronger than ever before in the attack with the likes of Jamie Dwyer, Grant Schubert, Eddie Ockenden and Des Abbott, the only Aboriginal in the team, but if only they can shake off the tag of “chokers”.
The Netherlands: Likewise, the Dutch have had their periods of plenty, winning three World Cups (the last in 1998 at home), but the discerning feel that they could be uni-dimensional in depending mostly on their penalty corner flickers to carry them forward. From Ties Kruize to Floris Bovelander to Taco Van den Honert to Taeke Taekema, the Dutch have produced a series of topnotch penalty corner specialists who have probably won more matches for their team than traditional forwards.
Although they are the trend-setters in penalty corner conversions, the Dutch in recent times have produced a succession of great midfielders, notably Teun de Nooijer who will be playing in his fifth World Cup.
The crafty midfield general de Nooijer, who turns 35 on March 22, is the heart and soul of the Dutch team. When at his creative best, the veteran has no peers. His creativity, sense of timing, especially in release of the ball, accuracy of passes that set-up a goal, or his own wonderful craft inside the striking circle, make a complete player. To boot, he is a strong tackler and a willing runner with great speed, even with the ball. These attributes make him a very special player the likes of whom modern hockey has not seen.
Thus, the Dutch strength lies in its midfield while their deep defence is as solid with seasoned Augustinus “Guus” Vogels, probably playing his last World Cup, in the goal. The 35-year old Vogels is considered one of the greatest goalkeepers of the modern era and a latter day Ian Taylor with his unmatched anticipation and super reflexes. He will have a role to play if the Dutch are to go all the way in New Delhi.
On the face of it, the Netherlands appear strong and solid, and for sure, they would be out to make up for their seventh place finish in 2006 when they looked good enough to win the Cup. They were knocked out by Germany and Korea who played a goalless draw, something that the Dutch would not have forgotten.
The likes of 2008 Olympic silver medallists Spain, 2009 European champions England, Korea, Pakistan and India would be no doubt snapping at the heels of the top three, but it will take a bigger bite to topple these giants of modern hockey.