Destination Tokyo: What lies ahead for India in the Olympic qualifiers
The Indians have made it to the Olympic qualifiers, but what lies ahead for Graham Reid's boys?
Let us take a look at what awaits the Indians on the road to Tokyo - and why their rankings and the format of the qualifiers may come to their aid in the quest to book a place for the mega event which begins in July next year.
Road to Tokyo via Series Finals, Pro League, and Continental Championships
As per the FIH regulations, the six finalists from three legs of the FIH Series Finals will progress to the Olympic qualifiers.
Canada and Malaysia have made it through via the Kuala Lumpur edition of the tournament while India and South Africa have booked their place via the Bhubaneswar leg. The third and final phase is currently in progress in Le Touquet, France.
Six teams from the FIH Series Finals will be joined by the four sides who make it to the Grand Finals of the FIH Pro League.
The preliminary round of the Pro League ends on June 23, and as things stand, Australia and Argentina are currently placed first and fourth in the points table respectively - and have a great chance of making the top four along with Belgium and the Netherlands.
Interestingly, Australia (#WR 2) and Argentina (WR #4) may well make it to Tokyo via their respective continental championships - and if either the Netherlands (WR #3) or Belgium (WR #1) do the same, the Indians may start the Olympic qualifiers as the second-highest ranked side.
While the European championships may not have a clear favorite, history bears witness to the fact that Oceania, America, and Africa have not produced too many qualifiers down the years as the snapshot below suggests.
Since it's inception in 1999, Australia and New Zealand have played every single final and Australia have won the tournament ten times in a row.
Pan American Games:
Only two teams - Canada and Argentina have won the Pan American Games with both teams playing the finals ten times in a row since 1975.
Argentina has won the previous two editions in 2011 and 2015.
African Nations Cup:
The South Africans have won every single edition of the African Nations Cup from 1993 onwards and may not have to take part in the qualifiers although a second-place finish at the Bhubaneswar FIH Series Finals guarantees them a place for the matches.
As per the FIH guidelines, if the teams that make it to the qualifiers also win the continental championship, then their slots will be taken up by the highest-ranked teams (as per the updated September rankings) that have not qualified for the Olympics.
"Should one or more of these teams win their Continental Championship later on and therefore qualify directly for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, then this/these additional spot(s) will go to the best ranked nations not already qualified in the FIH World Rankings (as at the end of the 2018 / 2019 round of Continental Championships)"
Now, here is the catch.
The Olympic qualifiers are not going to be played in a conventional tournament format.
Fourteen teams to be drawn in pairs for Olympic qualifiers
Since Japan have won the Asian Games, the winners of the remaining four continental championships (Oceania Cup, Pan American Games, EuroHockey Championships, and African Cup) will book tickets for the Games and be joined by seven teams from the Olympic qualifiers.
At the qualifiers which begin in October, fourteen teams will be drawn in pairs based on their world rankings and play two back-to-back matches against each other. The team with the highest aggregate score will qualify for Tokyo 2020.
The rules further specify that the matches will be hosted by the higher-ranked of the two teams and that a shootout will determine the winner if the aggregate score remains tied after the second match.
Assuming that the Pro League standings remain the way they are currently, Germany and Great Britain (England) may progress to the Olympic qualifiers as the next top-ranked teams in spite of not making it to the Grand Final - provided nations like Australia, Argentina, Belgium or the Netherlands win their respective continental championships.
A team higher up in the rungs is more likely to be paired with a side lower down in the ranking ladder - and if Reid's boys manage to produce a performance that is in sync with their world rankings, the road to Tokyo may not be too arduous after all.