2012 OLYMPIC WOMENS HOCKEY- WHOSE GOLD MEDAL WILL IT BE ?

GB women will play in front of their biggest partisan crowd in the history of the game at the Riverbank and will not disappoint.

NOTE– some of these images can be seen enlarged by clicking on them.

I like to end Tweets with the tag #hockeyfamily  because of my affection and admiration for the sport and the community ( at all levels and wish to promote it ) which occupies  far more of my time than makes any business sense and I try to be supportive of it at all levels , and most international teams have had a positive mention from me on line at some point via social media or my official journalism but inevitably  a few particular international  teams  have grabbed my attention because in part there has been far more written about them but also they are ones I have actually seen, photographed and contain a few players  I actually know or have had some contact with . Trying to figure out which teams will take the podium in London , as a result , becomes the same sort of dilemma a father night feel with  his children all up for an award. In this case, those teams are my own national side GB , Holland and Argentina  a trio that for most pundits  have the most realistic prospect  of a medal, if things go to form  but who will take the gold ?

Pretty much all the teams who have qualified have  had players and coaches  speaking positively in their media    about their prospects and   to garner support , to raise awareness, fulfil obligations to sponsors and fuel interest in the games. Hockey in many ways  remains a minority sport as yet to fully grab the public’s attention in a world where interest in such sport , for those outside the game , enjoys what is merely patriotic interest which  disappears as soon as the national team exits the medal race.  Now is the final run up to the Olympics  and a   time for players and coaches  to be silent and completely focus  because anything they say  now  we could easily  guess. Pre-Olympic  excitement , hope and expectation are universal  , and they should leave it to the journalists and fans to speculate on how it will unfold. Where are we now  in the game and what can we expect?  I am taking an overview of the last few years of watching and photographing internationals and getting to know more about the different teams, their style of play and grass roots hockey in this era which has seen the most exciting developments in the quality of games ever .  Nothing happens overnight , quality and greatness has to be worked on , day in , day out at individual and team level and international  experience and careful rigorous long term preparation at this level is essential. Some teams in the lower rankings remain a “work in progress ” and these games will be a part of the cruel learning curve-  others have  impressive records of regular international success and for GB women they have progressed more than most over the last four or five years  , before which they had little change of Olympic gold. as of now , they never been in a better place and yet this was planned for.  Cometh the hour, cometh the team and this Olympics is final exams for Danny Kerry’s players  and hopefully a successful graduation day for the team from  the national centralised programme they have followed to the letter.

Champions Trophy 2010- GB’s highest podium finish in that event but so much more to come and upped it to silver this year against former wold champions Argentina.

EH & GB hockey and the players have done a fantastic job in long term meticulous preparation for these games but also done a fine job promoting the game and making the players accessible through the media and I anticipate an unprecedented surge of public support and interest in the sport during the games and in particular , in my view, because of the stand out success of the GB women with a real chance of gold and for perhaps the first time in our history equal to any team in the world. All that hard work ensures these games will see the biggest crowds that have ever supported the national team and that is going tto be a significant factor.

Despite the prominence and success of hockey in Holland I believe it is the Argentine team of the last decade  , “ Las Leonas”, who have achieved what no other team has done in any other country world wide- grabbed the public consciousness across the board ,by the tail , and made the players celebrities and household names and given the game prominence to challenge even football in terms of the national pride these women inspire. At home they are idolised by fans . Youngsters grow up , taking up the game dreaming of being an Aymar or one of the chosen squad in the light blue and white shirt. They get phenomenal support at internationals from  fans with an enthusiasm and passion which is legendary, totally infectious, and somewhat intimidating for visiting teams.

Argentina’s highly successful “Las Leonas” Olympic gold is the only award yet to elude them.

London will I believe be their biggest ever challenge in terms of that quest for the holy grail, the missing gold in the trophy cabinet. This time , for the first time , there will be a vast home crowd rooting, not for them , but  for the host team, a home team better than any previous squad the nation has ever fielded who will bring an A game equal to any team in the world. We are in for the greatest hockey show on earth , no doubt- and to use a famous phrase “Who Dares Win’s.” GB women are  no longer prepared to accept loosing graciously as enough and will give their all.

Throughout this land, and in countries like Holland and  especially in Argentina , grass roots hockey has come of age with magnificent widespread development projects encouraging and engaging kids in the game, mindful of the unique health, social and other benefits the game has to offer for a wider, brighter future not just the game itself but our societies , all in virtual crisis with health issues related to lack of exercise not to mention levels of social problems caused in part by a number of kids who are disaffected and unengaged  and not as cooperative or sociable as we might wish them to be, factors which organised team sport like hockey can address in a non threatening way and a viable alternative to a lot of things which might have kids in trouble.

I hold the Argentine team and staff in great affection as I do the grass roots hockey scene that has developed back home. Through prolific use of social media and interaction in Spanish or English from fans of all ages I have learned a great deal about how the game is run and gained some insight into how they have produced such a magnificent players. I cannot fail to appreciate the passion for the game across the country and the adoration of particularly Las Leonas.

The Netherlands, the most successful European team on the world stage, but will the latest combination of seasoned internationals and new faces gel when it matters?

In Britain and Holland all hockey league games are played on synthetic surfaces but in Argentina a relatively vast country, quite a few  clubs especially I’d guess those not based in the big conurbations , do not have that luxury and play on various surfaces including grass and some on what is basically level waste ground. Football became  so broadly popular worldwide simply because it can be played on virtually any open space, or a roadway or relatively level surface. There are some  pluses to be had in the enjoyment of games and the development of skills on a variety of surfaces especially when being introduced to the game early  on  – it requires better stick skills but above all allows less for ball chasing and show boating and there you have the basis of co-cooperativeness of players and the essence of the legendary team spirit which exists in players who wear the national shirt with such pride and passion. I do not wish to be patronising or over simplistic but Argentina has produced world champions whose game was often learned and developed on  a range of pitches which fall well short of standards enjoyed fo example in Europe. Then  there is an incredible network of great grass roots clubs each organised in regional associations under the governance of the CAH ( Confederacion Argentina de hockey) clubs are so family orientated and enmjoy a huge amount of voluntary support

#8 Luciana “Lucha” Aymar , idolised at home and globally recognised as the best ever player in the world .She will retire after this Olympics

London will be, I  believe , the Argentine team’s greatest challenge as a  team and a nation, in this their star player and most respected national sports celebrity, Luciana Aymar’s international swan song. They so want the gold to crown her career as the best player ever but also that gold , the only medal not in their trophy cabinet . The challenge is intensified   especially  with the anticipated home support from GB fans and home advantage where GB hockey is also enjoying a huge surge in public interest as they become more and more successful. Unlike so much disappointment familiar to fans of other national field and court sports where squads and individuals either underachieved or were not equipped to take on the best, GB women have a fresh and rigorously professional single minded determination. They have a now previously absent professional cutting edge  honed through  hard daily work together as a team over several years under the “centralised programme” and are a formidable  force to be reckoned with and this from a huge fan of both the Dutch and Argentine women’s game, but one taking enormous pride in the hard earned success of my own national team.

In the recent  past perhaps the Dutch  and Argentine fans  could reasonably expect to see their teams in virtually all  finals at major events they are involved in almost as a matter of course  but GB has come such a long way since 2006 when I first started attending and photographing internationals .They are now genuinely a major threat to all participating teams at this Olympics.  Unlike the tennis, with the broken dreams it has continued to give us, hockey is a very different ball game literally where the great  teams are quite evenly matched as the top few really are. Wins can and will hinge on the moments and who takes what opportunities arise.  The game has become so fast , requires new levels of pace and stamina and features more and more full on attacking play making it so much more watchable and some of the rules have been modified relatively recently to that end.

In London the ability and experience of goal keepers is a huge issue. Most teams have an alternative goal keeper  who are ” P accredited”  ( reserves ) Argentina , significantly or not, have  two talented but relatively (internationally) inexperienced keepers  due to the premature departure in Olympic year  , due to pregnancy,   of their former fist choice experienced keeper Succi .    Also  the ability of key players to blast the ball at keepers using the difficult to master technique of the killer “drag flick” particularly on “shorts”  routines , penalty corners which will play a significant part in success.  “Penalty corners “ are a kind of bonus pop at goal but they require the opposition to penetrate the D and force the defence to foul or obstruct the ball with a foot . You will see a lot of tactical manoeuvring with defensive possession  looking for opening to start a forward attack but also attacking drives either in mid field tussles or from down the wings and field goals either from players gifted enough to carry the ball through defences or drive killer balls across the “d” to be deflected into the goal often with a spectacular move from the player nearest the ball literally casting fate to the wind and courageously throwing themselves horizontally to deflect  the ball in.  Lower ranked teams will off course try to attack but are more likely to play games with more emphasis on defence and possession.

Aymar, voted best in the world by her peers a record seven times ,capable of dazzling magic skills and individual attacking runs at defence and a “golazo”- wonder goal

At full strength , bringing their “A” game , as they now always do,  in the current GB women’s team there are no areas of weakness in their game -they can cover all the bases in either solid defence of attacking with flare and pace and all are superbly fit.  They have trained  as a unit and also played as a unit for quite some time with both experienced multi-capped players in the mix giving confidence and stability with talented youngsters who have excelled and continue to do so.  All teams come to particularly the Olympics with varying degrees of hope and or expectation. This time for the first  time , GB women have earned the right ,through dint of hard long term work and meticulous and professional long term professional preparation to more expectation than hope as have Argentina and Holland and in my view all other teams visit , if they are  realistic,  fuelled with more  hope than expectation   because a golden game in one match just won’t do it- it is a gruelling tournament and you have battle through . It is always possible that one of the other ranked teams might pull of a shock and scrape into the final but I very much doubt it because this is the greatest show on earth and inspires people to great things  and so many will raise their game but it is also true of the best.

 

A huge fan, yes, of Argentina and Holland with their amazing CVs  and who ,over  recent years, were the teams that raised the bar  , but  I expect one of them to share the final with the GB women failing any injury mishaps. That final will be a thriller and no doubt very close -my instinct says GB Holland  fighting for  gold- home an immense advantage. The GB women , as a wel rehearsed tight unit now fear neither team  or any other and the squad has had a consistent composition in comparison with their most likely rivals for a medal.  If it ends in normal or extra time no problem- a shoot out would be the cruellest ending and not anything to do with previous history that has plagued our  male international footballers and  the  penalty jinx ,because such an ending, in modern hockey ,  is always a lottery,  not confirmation you are the best.

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