Australia’s win in the World Hockey League Final last week was a great result for the Kookaburras. For Colin Batch, it was reward for the hard work he and his staff have put in since taking charge of the squad reeling from the disappointment of Rio. For Mark Knowles, it was a marker to him and other senior players that the new players that have come in after a larger than normal post-Olympic clean-out have what it takes to keep them at the top table. Conveniently, and nowhere near as important, it also provides this ex-Kookaburra and part-time hockey writer an opportunity to critique the World League and the format of FIH’s tournaments without any accusation of sour grapes!
The good, indeed great, thing about the World League is the improved and increased competition it provides for the emerging hockey nations and for the increasing number of countries trying to break into the world’s top six. Ireland and Canada now knock on that door along with former heavyweight nations such as Korea, Pakistan and Spain. You can even go as far down as number 23 and 24 in the world and you’ll find Scotland and Wales who have used the experience of their World League campaigns to build teams good enough to have recently qualified for the next European A Division Championships.
Whilst creating more opportunities for lower ranked teams is undoubtedly a good thing, the same cannot be said for a competition format which seems to work against the higher finishing teams. Starting with the World League Semi-Finals, is it fair that a team should have to play a knock-out Quarter-Final against a team that lost one of its games 10-0? You’d surely be annoyed if one of your players injured themselves badly in the process. And whilst that might not seem that important, if you bundle all the recent modifications of the international game into one, it makes you wonder if FIH are taking the need to enhance competition and entertain crowds a touch too far?
Alongside an extra knock-out match, creating a game that is shorter, with two more breaks and which then goes straight to the lottery of a penalty shootout if it’s a draw at full time seems to be far more in favour of a team that wants to “park the bus” and hope their goalkeeper can win it for them. We see that in football and it is boring.
I’ve got nothing against Quarter-Finals in 16 team competitions but with ten teams it is unnecessary and with eight, as at the World League Final, it’s pointless. A bit like playing musical chairs with a seat for everyone. It’s also obvious that it’s not doing any favours for the teams who progress best through the round games. Three of the four semi-finalists in both the men’s and women’s World League Finals finished in the bottom half of their pool. In the women’s event, New Zealand made the final having not won a point in the round games whilst at the men’s event, Australia’s only managed three draws. In comparison, three points in the two men’s pools at the recent European Championships put you last and in a fight to avoid relegation.
The World League Semi Finals in London also showed that teams significantly off the pace can leave this Quarter-Final format open to contrived scenarios. When you have a QF spot guaranteed, or as good as, you can afford to rest players. That is a far riskier decision at tournaments like the Euros where every game and every goal counts. Seeing GK’s interchanged just after half-time against the weakest teams in search of enough goals to avoid a tough opponent in the QF’s is also less than ideal. Several of those goals, from a yard out past a defender in a smock when both teams have dispensed with their GK midway through the third quarter, hardly seem worth counting towards the tournament’s leading goal scorer award.
And if Quarter-Finals aren’t difficult enough, the scheduling in Bhubaneswar was just plain ludicrous. Top of the table Belgium were required to play the day after their last round game against the lowest ranked team of the other pool. India, benefitting from an extra day’s rest, proved a much sterner opponent than their round game form suggested, which had only yielded one draw from three games. It was an unfortunate luck of the draw that this scheduling matched the home team with an extra day’s rest against the Belgians and I know they refuse to use it as an excuse. Nevertheless, I go back to my earlier point regarding the format doing nothing for higher placed teams and FIH should know there is a massive difference between playing back to back games and having 24 hours to recover.
There is also an argument to wonder why India were playing at all. Their 6th place at the Semi-Finals was way short of the other teams who qualified in the top four at the Semi Finals in Johannesburg and the top three in London. Of course, I understand the need to have hosts who can afford to put the event on and the importance of showcasing international hockey in front of big crowds. You can also argue that if they already knew they had qualified they may have used the tournament to look at new players or strategies. Either way, and going back to my earlier point about the increased number of teams trying to break into the top world’s top six, it seems wholly unfair for a team to earn hugely valuable ranking points at an event they didn’t qualify properly for, particularly when three other teams in and around their ranking with better records at the two Semi-Final tournaments missed out.
The Elephant in the Room
But that is not the only question mark that this World League has left hanging over hockey and specifically next year’s World Cup for men to be held at the same venue. Twitter followers may have seen injured German legend Tobias Hauke in Hamburg praise his team for their astonishing efforts in their semi-final and bronze medal games. With up to seven players out with gastro based illness, Die Honomas were incredible. Needing to use their second GK as a field player, they still competed with Australia throughout their Semi-Final and then pushed India all the way the day after in the bronze medal match. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to play Germany you’ll also know that if there is one team in the world whose GK could score in open play with a cool finish then it is them. Trust me though, the fact that Argentina superstar Gonzalo Peillat, another Olympic Gold medallist with loads of experience of playing in India, has joined Hauke in raising concerns about player’s health when competing in India tells you that all is not happy amongst their fraternity. There is much more to this than just the usual few players in each team spending a day or two in the littlest rooms in the hotel. Stay tuned for more.
By Todd Williams for Gryphon Hockey.