TOKYO (AFP) –
Japan’s men’s field hockey team will be gunning to take full advantage of home soil to book their first Olympic ticket in 44 years, while their women are favourites to get to London.
Twelve teams — six in the men’s qualifying competition and six in the women’s — will do battle in Kakamigahara, central Japan, from Wednesday for the final Olympic slots, one each for men and women.
The event is the last of three final Olympic qualifying tournaments which started in February to decide the last three berths each for men and women and wrap up a long process to choose 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams for the London Games.
The Japanese men, ranked 15th in the world, are locked in a tough contest led by 12th-ranked South Africa and including China (17), Austria (21), Czech Republic (23) and Brazil (42).
“The time must come when we make history. And the time is now,” said Japan captain Kei Kawakami.
South Africa head coach Gregg Clark was talking up his team’s chances, saying that a “smooth, fast surface” at the venue, the Gifu Green Stadium, “suits our style of play.”
“The smooth surface allows us to be accurate and efficient with our technical skills and the pace of the pitch suits our ball movement,” he told South African media.
In the women’s, Japan are favourites to win a third straight Olympic spot because their world ranking of nine is far above nearest rivals Azerbaijan (15) and Chile (17).
The other women’s teams are Belarus (22nd), Malaysia (23rd) and Austria (29th).
Zenjiro Yasuda, head coach of Japan’s women, attempted to dampen expectation.
“The rankings count for little,” Yasuda warned.
Azerbaijan’s women have enlisted naturalised players from powerhouses South Korea and Chile are coming up strong with European-style hockey. Belarus are physically stronger than the Japanese.
“We have built up our finishing power, which was our shortcoming, and we will test it in our opening match,” Japan women’s captain Yukari Yamamoto said.
The Japanese women gained confidence when they finished fifth at the prestigious Champions Trophy in January, behind the world’s top-four teams, the Netherlands, Argentina, Germany and England.
Argentina took the title but Japan defeated Asian Games silver medallists South Korea and world number-six New Zealand.
The top two men’s and women’s sides in the round robin in Japan will play for the last ticket to London. The women’s final is on May 5 and the men’s May 6.