RIO DE JANEIRO promises the biggest party during the opening ceremony at the legendary Maracana Stadium on Friday with three female performers from three different generations among just some of the attractions.
But the Brazilian city of Rio has a difficult act to follow after London 2012’s jaw dropping version. As for now even the identity of the person carrying the Olympic torch to ignite the cauldron remains a mystery.
Likewise the same can be said of mysterious expectations in the Olympics hockey events that takes place from 6-19 August at Rio’s purpose-built Deodoro Olympic Park, featuring the 12 men’s and 12 women’s international teams that qualified through the Hockey World League and Continental Championships.
The Greatest Show on earth has arrived with the finest hockey teams joining the world’s best sports personalities from 206 countries preparing to battle it out for the biggest prize in sport – an Olympic gold medal.
Germany has won the last two gold medals following brilliant performances at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games. If they claim gold in Rio, the Germans will be the first team to win three successive Olympic titles since India’s trio of gold medals at the London 1948, Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956 Olympiads.
The squad chosen by Head Coach Valentin Altenburg has five Olympic gold medallists from London, including two winners of the FIH Men’s Player of the Year Award. Midfield star Tobias Hauke (2013) and former midfielder turned defender Moritz Fürste (2012), both double Olympic gold medallists, are considered amongst the best players in the history of German hockey and will be central to Die Honamas’ title challenge.
Reigning world champions Australia have won medals at the last six Olympic Games, having taken silver at Barcelona 1992, bronze at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, gold at Athens 2004 followed by bronze medals at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics.
The Indians, however, arrived in Rio as the only successful Asian men’s team after arch rivals and former Olympic champions Pakistan’s failure to qualify for the first time in the history of the Summer Games. Missing the boat too are the Koreans, Japanese and Malaysians.
The eight-time Olympic champions are the most decorated team here and are in search of an Olympic medal that eluded the country for 36 years. India’s last of the eight Olympic gold medals came way back in 1980.
Coached by Dutchman Roelant Oltmans, India have been in outstanding form this year, claiming silver medals at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup (Ipoh, Malaysia) and the Hero Hockey Champions Trophy in London in June.
Their squad is packed full of immense talent. Team captain P.R. Sreejesh is one of the most gifted and charismatic goalkeepers around, while drag-flicking defenders V.R. Raghunath and Rupinder Pal Singh are a constant threat at penalty corners.
Ranked World No 5, India is back at the world stage and solidly in line for one of the three medal colours at stake in Rio. They have been drawn in a tough Group B for the Rio Olympic Games with defending champions Germany, European champions Netherlands and Pan-American Games champions Argentina in the six-team Pool B.
“We will play the three top teams of our group back to back. Instead of looking at that as a daunting task we think it’s a great opportunity. It’ll help us keep improving our level, and positive results will give us more confidence from game to game,” coach Oltmans said.
Sreejesh also echoed Oltmans sentiments when he said: “India have the right balance between youth and experience, with a number of players from London 2012 still part of the mix for Rio. Consistency will be the key.”
“The last couple of years have given us confidence. We have beaten all the top teams and won medals,” said the team captain. “It has given us tremendous confidence that now we are ready to beat any team and we will carry that to Rio.”
The Indians will open their campaign against Ireland (Aug 6). The Green Machines are making only their second Olympic appearance since winning the silver medal at the London 1908 Games. But India’s real test will come against Germany (Aug 8) before they clash with Argentina (Aug 9), the Netherlands (Aug 11) and Canada (Aug 12). The top four teams from each pool will qualify for the quarterfinals beginning August 14.
World champions Australia, Great Britain, Belgium, New Zealand, Spain and Brazil are drawn in Group A. The Australian team selected by Head Coach Graham Reid for Rio features 10 returning Olympians and six debutants ready to reclaim the gold medal that they won at the Athens 2004 Games.
Led by defender Mark Knowles who alongside Jamie Dwyer was a member of the Kookaburras team that won gold in Athens Australia are very much the team to beat. The 2014 World Cup winners were the 2015 Hockey World League Champions and recently claimed their 14th Hockey Champions Trophy in London.
Host Brazil may be the lowest ranked team (30) in the men’s competition, but they are very much here on merit. Set the target of achieving a top six finish at last year’s Pan American Games in Toronto by both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Hockey Federation (FIH), Brazil went one stage better, reaching the semi-finals to guarantee a top four finish at the event.
Since the introduction of a women’s hockey competition at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games, five nations have won gold medals with Zimbabwe being the surprise gold medallists in 1980, the Netherlands (Los Angeles 1984), Australia (Seoul 1988) and Spain (Barcelona 1992).
Following Australia’s victories at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, Germany emerged champions at the Athens 2004 Games before the Netherlands claimed their second and third Olympic titles at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 respectively.
But Asia’s high-flying teams in World No 6 China, Korea (8), Japan (10) and India (13) will be out to ruffle the feathers of the ‘Big Stars’ of the game. Only China and Korea have won an Olympic medal while Japan and India are all targeting their first ever medal in Rio.
The Indian women’s hockey team, which has qualified for the Olympics after 36 years, will take on Japan in their opener on Aug 7 and next play Great Britain (Aug 8), Australia (Aug 10), United States (Aug 11 and Argentina (Aug 13).
When chief coach, Australian Neil Hawgood, set the Indians the goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games, almost most of the players did not know what he was talking about. For them, the Commonwealth Games was the biggest ever event.
“Right now, there is a lot of pressure on them. There’s a lot of attention, which, at times, doesn’t help. This team does not know anything about Olympics because no one in 30 years has been there from India. But they will gain from this experience,” Hawgood says.
Whatever happens in Rio when the four Asian teams go into full scale battle, they can count on the support of an entire Asian community roaring for their success – putting aside political and economic differences. Time to Samba Asia!
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