Firstpost Explains: Why Indian hockey teams' route to qualify for Tokyo Olympics 2020 is tricky after Asian Games heartbreak
With the Tokyo Olympics less than two years away, we take look at Indian hockey teams' complicated qualification route for the mega event after they failed to win gold at Asian Games.
When it comes to hockey, there is nothing bigger than the Olympics and the World Cup. A case can also be made that in terms of prestige value, Olympics even overtakes the World Cup. The first time hockey featured at the Summer Olympics was back in 1908. Since 1928, the sport has been a regular feature at the Olympics. Qualifying for the Olympics, and then winning a medal at the Games, is the ultimate dream for all hockey-playing countries.
So for Indian hockey team, who are eight-time Olympic gold medal winners, it's fair to say that the Olympics is a huge deal. Last time when the Indian men's team didn't qualify for the Olympics — at the 2008 Beijing Games — the media and fans called it a national shame. With the Tokyo Olympics less than two years away, and also taking into account the ongoing men's Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar, we take look at India's qualification scenarios for the mega event which has been made tricky with the inability of Harendra Singh's boys to seal direct entry by winning the Asian Games gold medal earlier this year.
Olympic qualification system
First of all, it has to be made clear that the Hockey World Cup — both men's and women's events — don't have any Olympic quotas for countries. Winning the Hockey World Cup is prestigious, but is in no way related to the Olympics since there's a separate qualification system in place for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
As is the case always, the host country gets an automatic slot in the Olympics. Since Japan is the host for the 2020 extravaganza, their place is confirmed. This leaves other nations to vie for the 11 remaining spots in both men's and women's events.
Out of the 11 teams who will eventually qualify, five countries will make the cut on the basis of winning their respective continental championships. For the 2020 Tokyo Games, the continental tournaments which will give an Olympic quota are:
Africa: Africa Olympic Qualification Tournament 2019
America: 18th Pan American Games 2019
Asia: 18th Asian Games 2018
Europe: 14th European Nations Championship 2019
Oceania: 11th Oceania Cup 2019
The remaining spots will be booked through Olympic qualification events. Now, since Japan's men's and women's teams have won gold medals at the Asian Games in Jakarta and considering they are also hosting the Games, the Olympic quota for the Asian Games goes to the qualification events and not the runner's up countries at the Asian Games. So seven countries will qualify through qualification events.
Teams who will play in these qualification matches are decided as follows:
- The four highest placed teams in the 2019 edition of the Hockey Pro League.
- The two highest placed teams in each of the three Hockey Series Finals. That means a total of six countries.
- The two highest placed teams in the FIH World Rankings as at the end of the all continental tournaments.
Now if any of the teams from above also qualify as continental champions or as host country team, their place will be taken by the next highest ranked team in the FIH World Rankings as at the end of all continental tournaments.
From the above, it would appear that 12 teams will play for the remaining six Olympic quotas. For the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, it's actually seven quotas because Japan have won the gold medals at the Asian Games. So here, the scenario changes to 14 teams, with one more country being selected on the basis of their ranking to play in the qualification matches.
These 14 teams will be drawn to play two matches with another country and the team with the highest aggregate score over these two matches will qualify for the Olympic Games.
The final 14 teams for the qualification matches will drawn as follows:
- The three highest ranked teams in the FIH World Rankings after all the continental tournaments will be drawn at random to play at home against one of the 12th, 13th and 14th ranked teams.
- The fourth, fifth, sixth and the seventh ranked teams in the FIH World Rankings after all the continental tournament will be drawn to play at home against one of the eighth, ninth, 10th or 11th ranked teams.
For example, if Argentina is one of the four highest ranked teams at the Hockey Pro League and they also win the gold medal at the Pan American Games, the Olympic quota for qualification matches will go to the fifth ranked team in the League.
India's road to Olympics
Both men's and women's teams of India did not win the gold medal at the Asian Games so now they have to go through these qualification events. Hockey India have decided not to participate in the inaugural Hockey Pro League tournament scheduled next year because the federation is of the opinion it would be difficult for Indian women's team to make it to the qualification matches.
The Hockey Pro League is a new competition in the FIH calendar, where the top nine men's and women's international teams will play each other on a home and away format every weekend for six months, starting from January next year. The top four teams at the end of the league will get a chance to play in the Olympic qualification matches.
Indian men's team are ranked World No 5, but the women's team are placed ninth in the FIH rankings. Therefore, it would've been difficult for the women's team to progress via the Pro League given the level of competition on offer.
"Let us make it clear that the Pro League will not give direct berths to top four teams in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. it will only give the four teams a chance to play in the Olympic qualifiers. Our women's team has no chance of qualifying in the top four, so we decided to pull out from the event," a top Hockey India official said.
The Indian teams will now play in one of the three Hockey Series Finals, scheduled around June, to make it to the Olympic qualification matches.
The decision might be beneficial for the women's team, but it came at the cost of the men's team playing in a good competition. Instead of playing the top sides, the men's team will now compete with lower-ranked sides like South Africa, Mexico, Poland, Russia etc. Considering the form and talent, Indian men's team are expected to make it easily for the Olympic qualification matches.
As already discussed, the ongoing World Cup does not having any Olympic quotas, but it's really important for Indian men's team that they maintain their superior ranking with a good performance in Bhubaneswar. If they end up having a good rank before the Olympic qualification matches, then would face a lower-ranked side, hence increasing their chances of making it to the Olympics.
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