On the FIH World Cup Show, television commentator and hockey connoisseur Dan Strange spoke of a moment in the final between Netherlands and Argentina that epitomised the 15th FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup.
The moment in question saw Argentina attacking the Dutch left-hand defensive corner with their accustomed ferocity. The ball was played out of defence with calmness and composure by Eva de Goede (33 years old and playing in her fourth World Cup). She slipped the ball to Felice Albers (22 years old and already a Junior World Cup, Olympic and World Cup gold medallist).
Albers looked around, assessed the situation and then turned on the burners to speed past Valentina Costa before shooting past Belén Succi – a giant of a goalkeeper in terms of ability and character and an emotional wreck as she sung her anthem for the last time as a player.
That snapshot epitomised the drama, emotion and downright quality that unfolded over 44 games of hockey.
This was the tournament where each and every hockey match enthralled and the stories behind the teams gave the competition a depth and a character that had hockey fans and those mildly interested all equally hooked.
Let’s start with Chile: they were the true underdogs, lowest ranked, very little international experience outside of their Pan American neighbourhood, but boy did they entertain. Their coach Sergio Vigil monopolised the cameras as his emotions were on full display for every minute of every match. His players were no less entertaining. They enjoyed everything about their first World Cup and they brought to the competition more South American flair and flavour - and the fans loved it. They also won two matches, and showed the enormous potential within the Diablas squad.
No stranger to hockey’s big events but certainly a stranger to international hockey for the past two years were Australia. The Hockeyroos, along with their Oceania neighbours New Zealand, have been conspicuous through their absence for much of the past two years, due to national government Covid restrictions on travel. Both sides shrugged this off, trained hard at home, played each other and came to Spain and the Netherlands ready to get competitive. Both teams won their pool stages and earned a four day break – something they probably could have done without.
The Hockeyroos then went several steps further as they beat host nation Spain in the quarter-finals, lost to the Netherlands by a slight 1-0 margin and then claimed bronze with a super performance against Germany. With Stephanie Kershaw and Amy Lawton creating from midfield, a rock steady defensive mindset and an excellent goalkeeper in Jocelyn Bartram, Australia look like the real deal for future tournaments.
This was a World Cup where the recognised stars of the game shone. Katie Mullan was the dynamo driving Ireland forward; Savita of India, Lee Jinmin of Korea and Liu Ping of China were among a plethora of goalkeepers who absolutely rocked it as they kept their teams in matches with crucial, athletic saves.
Within every team there are stalwarts who have been the bedrock of their team through management change, system change and all the highs and lows of international hockey. Sara McManus of Canada won her 200th cap in Amsterdam; Laura Unsworth and Hollie-Pearne-Webb were the platform from which England’s pacy forwards launched their attacks, Cheon Eunbi guided her young Korea teammates to hold their nerve to win their final match on shoot-out. Nagai Yuri and Oikawa Shihori continued to boss the midfield for Japan as the Cherry Blossoms played their usual style of creative, fast and clever hockey.
The outstanding comment and accolade was paid to Spain’s own stalwart Georgina Oliva on social media: ’70 per cent of the world is covered by water, the rest is covered by Gigi Oliva.’
Within the top four teams, wise heads made sure that the final performances were the best. Netherlands were on their now customary slow burn to success. The belief was always there in the eyes of Lidewij Welten, Margot van Geffen, Eva de Goede, Xan de Waard and the unassuming Marloes Keetels. They had all been there before and knew what it took to win.
Argentina almost made it. Their semi-final match against Germany was a classic and one of the most enjoyable games to watch as a neutral. As Agustina Albertarrio and Maria Granatto celebrated after a tense shoot-out, there was a sense – and later a reality – that the team might have peaked one game early.
Germany’s part in that match was an indication of what the team may offer in the next few years. They maintain the discipline and structure that every German team is known for, but now they have 3D skills, innovation, team connections. Sonja Zimmermann and Nike Lorenz are wise beyond their years; Anne Schroeder’s team talks leave her teammates at exactly the right pitch of readiness; Pia Maertens is a playmaker extraordinaire and Charlotte Stapenhorst, on her day, is one of the deadliest strikers around.
Australia’s performance has already been praised but their Head Coach Trinny Powell – one of three female Head Coaches at the World Cup, along with Janneke Schopman and Alyson Annan – should also be recognised for the way she prepared her team, in difficult circumstances, to play with such discipline in defence and freedom up front.
With young players such as Jean Leigh du Toit, Onthatile Zulu, Jette Fleschutz, Zhong Jiaqi, Lalremsiami, Sarah Mcauley, Anna Mollenhauer, Katie Doar, Felice Albers and Yibbi Jansen all entertaining us with their speed and flair, it would take a very special player to win Young Player of the Tournament. But Belgium’s Charlotte Englebert was a natural choice. She epitomises what the Red Panthers brought to the tournament with her workmate, game intelligence and determination to see the ball in the net.
Of course all of this needed a stage and a cast of people to make it happen. In both Amstelveen and Terrassa the local organising committees did a fantastic job of bringing hockey to the people. In the Wagener Stadium a sea of orange greeted just about every match no matter who was playing and the knowledgeable crowd lapped up the skills on offer.
In Terrassa, the stadium burst into a Spanish fiesta of noise and colour, particularly when the home team or Argentina took to the field. Spain’s Head Coach Adrian Lock said he had never experienced anything like it and his players soaked up every moment.
Keeping a lid on it all was a team of utterly professional umpires. Time and again we heard the communication between the umpiring teams as they ensured that fairness and rules were enforced while the game remained as free-flowing as possible. The interactions between umpires and players showed that everyone was working for the same goal. The umpiring was superb and another huge positive for our sport.
While the final whistle signalled the start of Dutch celebrations, it was also a time of poignancy as the game said goodbye to some of its stars. Marloes Keetels and Belén Succi were the players who had publicly said this was the end, but the tears and emotions on the faces of many other players told their own story and we were left to make up our own minds. What was evident to everyone as the sun set on Terrassa, is that the coaches, athletes, officials and organisers have just produced a showcase event that has raised the bar to a whole new level.