If players and coaches are to be believed, any team but most certainly not their own, are favourites at the Hero Hockey World League Finals.
“We may be the home team but there is no pressure on us,” says VR Raghunath. The Indian drag flicker’s modesty may be understandable considering the hosts are the second lowest ranked side(after Argentina) in the tournament. But it is unusual when the usually severe Markus Weisse, coach of current Olympic champions Germany cracks a grin and says “I don’t think we are going to win the tournament.”
The World League finals isn’t a minor event in hockey’s calender. The FIH aims to have it serve as a qualifying system to World Cups and Olympics and while all the teams who feature in Delhi have already qualified for the World Cup in Rotterdam, there are still plenty of ranking points on offer. So the lack of intensity or rather belief seems a little odd right at the start of the year.
Things make a little more sense considering how packed the rest of the 2014 schedule is. The World League is followed after a week’s break by the Hockey India League. That tournament lasts until the end of February. Another couple of months later is the World Cup in Rotterdam. In the end of the year there is the Champions Trophy. For India, New Zealand, Australia and England, the second half of the year also features the Commonwealth Games, while the Asian Games is another big ticket event for India.
“It is a strange year for sure. I think the last time we had such a tight schedule was in 2006,” says Mark Knowles, skipper of Australia, who also have to squeeze in the Azlan Shah tournament this year.
A packed calender challenges the most dominant of teams. Doing well in tournaments isn’t just a matter of showing up but about peaking physically and technically during that period. “Personally I think we have too many tournaments. You can’t keep playing matches one after the other, you need time to analyse performances, train and recover as well,” says Weisse.
“It’s hard to be able to peak so many times in a year, but I guess we will have to manage somehow,” says Knowles. While Knowles says it will be possible to be in peak physical condition for all events, most teams are betting more cautiously. As such they would rather view the World League Finals through the larger prism of the 2014 World Cup.
“It will be interesting to see where we stand post this tournament, as from here we then start preparing for the World Cup. This tournament is like a final test for us before we enter the World Cup,” says Netherlands coach Paul van Ass.
According to Germany’s Weisse however, the tournament itself is preparation for the World Cup ” I don’t think that winning the tournament is what our goal is. For us the tournament is important from a preparation point of view to the World Cup. We want to work on the basics — improving speed, understanding and individual techniques,” says Weisse.
Weisse insists that the nature of the calendar means that managing workloads will be crucial. Indeed a glance across the team lists indicates that teams are both giving seasoned players rest and using the tournament as a way to give a bit of experience to younger players. Australia for example have omitted Jamie Dwyer, 2011 World Young Player of the Year Matthew Swann, Athens gold medalist Rob Hammond and double Olympic bronze medal winner Fergus Kavanagh, all of whom are playing the HIL in a couple of weeks.
“There’s a load issue with some of the senior guys in particular, who, if selected, would then have eight weeks in India,” coach Ric Charlesworth had said.
In place youngsters including Daniel Beale, who played the Junior World Cup last month have been included. Weisse in contrast hasn’t picked any of the juniors of Germany’s Junior World Cup winning team. “I needed to give them some rest,” he explains.
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