Key clashes to look forward to at the FIH Olympic qualifiers
The last remaining qualifying spots for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be up for grabs at the FIH Olympic Qualifiers scheduled to be held from October 25 - November 3.
In the men’s category, Argentina and Belgium have already qualified for the 2020 Olympics after winning the 2019 Pan American Games and 2019 EuroHockey Championships respectively.
Australia also booked their ticket for the Olympic Games after winning the Oceania Cup a few months ago, whilst South Africa are already confirmed to take part alongside hosts Japan.
That leaves seven spots to be decided in the upcoming matches, where teams have been drawn to play against each other in two-legged playoff games.
Likewise on the women's side, five teams are already assured of a place: Netherlands, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa will join Japan.
But that leaves an awful lot to play for - so let's take a look at some of the standout FIH Olympic qualifiers.
Spain vs France (men)
The Olympic qualifiers kick off in the city of Valencia as Spain take on France over two legs on 25-26 October. The hosts have a slightly superior rank and currently occupy the eighth position, but France aren’t too far behind in 12th place.
The last time these sides met was in the group stages of the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Bhubaneshwar, with that contest ending as a 1-1 draw. Spain though enjoy a better head-to-head record of late, but struggled in the recently concluded series against India.
The French side too have blown hot and cold lately, winning the EuroHockey Championship II in early August but losing their home games against 13th-ranked Ireland following that triumph. Having conceded early goals in both those games against Ireland, France struggled to find their way back in the contest. Heading into the Olympic qualifier against Spain, Victor Charlet and co. would be hoping to buck that trend if they are to seal their ticket to Tokyo.
China vs Belgium (women)
The city of Changzhou will host the Olympic qualifier between China and Belgium on 25-26 October. China had a forgettable Olympic test event, where they finished bottom of the group with a solitary point, courtesy a goalless draw against India. They also lost both matches in their recent tour games against Ireland, struggling to score goals in those ties.
China's downturn in form has been mirrored by Belgium who finished a disappointing fifth position in August’s EuroHockey Championships. They started that competition well, with a thumping win against Russia and a resolute draw against the Netherlands, but lost to Spain in the crucial third fixture and missed out on a semi-finals berth.
Netherlands vs Pakistan (men)
Three-time Olympic gold medallists Pakistan travel to Amsterdam to take on European heavyweights the Netherlands in their Olympic qualifier. The hosts start off as favourites in this clash and would be high on confidence following two convincing wins against Malaysia in their home series. Forward Bjorn Kellerman has been in good form of late and would be confident on continuing that run when Pakistan come visiting.
While Dutch hockey has been on the rise the past few years, the Pakistani team have been on a downward spiral. They could manage only a solitary point at the 2018 World Cup and failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Despite their problems, the Pakistani side can be a tough nut to crack on their day and with most not fancying them to get past this organised Dutch side, an upset cannot be discounted.
Great Britain vs Malaysia (men)
Great Britain will take on Malaysia over two legs in London in the first week of November. The hosts finished in fourth place in the 2019 FIH Men’s Pro League, where they beat some of the top-ranked teams like Australia, Spain and New Zealand.
Adam Dixon’s side enjoys the superior rank against their Asian counterparts, but they have had a tendency to crumble in crucial games, and that would be something Malaysia would hope to capitalise on come November.
Malaysia struggled at the Olympic Test Event in Japan earlier in August, losing all their games in that competition. They also lost both games in their away tour against the Netherlands. The Asian side, therefore, would need a major turnaround in form to get past Great Britain in the Olympic qualifiers.
Spain vs South Korea (women)
Spain prepped for this Olympic qualifier in the best way possible, emerging as champions in the recently concluded FIH women’s series finals in Valencia Their penalty corner specialist Lola Riera has been in brilliant form and would be the main threat for South Korea’s defence in the forthcoming Olympic qualifiers.
The Asian side though have been in good form themselves of late. They won the FIH Women’s Series Finals in Banbridge, winning all their games in the process and conceding just once in that competition. Their ranking is marginally inferior to the hosts, but one can expect a closely contested match when Spain and South Korea lock horns.