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October 7, 1999

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Cedric D'Souza

The Maple Leaf flies high

During the last couple of months we have had four major tournaments across the globe. Teams playing in their respective zones, fighting it out to win, to directly qualify for the Sydney Olympics without going through the hassles of the qualifying tournament.

Remember, those who come out second best have to play the qualifier, and so getting on the winner's podium is paramount. We all know that the quality of the teams competing at the qualifiers is almost on par with one another and although there are six berths to be grabbed, one cannot always guarantee qualification. There have been many instances where reputed teams that are predicted as sure shot qualifiers have not made the grade. Therefore, the competitiveness and eagerness to succeed will always be of the highest order during these zonal tournaments.

Let me enlighten you on tournaments within the five zones - the European Championships (which has Spain, Germany, Holland, England as main contenders), the African Games (with South Africa and Egypt), the Oceania Zone (with Australia and New Zealand), the Asian Games (which India has already won), and the Pan American Games (with Argentina and Canada).

For now, I will talk about the Pan American Games. The teams of consequence within this zone are Canada, Argentina and the United States, the first two teams in the fray have a realistic hope of winning. We all aware of the fighting qualities of both Canada and Argentina. Their never-say-die attitude has many a time been the scourge of numerous teams. If memory serves me right, during the 5th to 8th place play-offs at the Sydney World Cup in 1994, India were leading Argentina by two first half goals. And, although we eventually won the game via the tie-breaker, we were lucky to come out with a draw and force the tie-breaker.

As far as Canada goes, over the last two years, India have played them thrice and Canada has come out victorious twice.

So what happens when these teams, with similar strengths, compete for the highest honour in their zone? Well, the end result of this similarity ensures that the quality of play dished out will be of the highest order; games will be fiercely competitive, and unflagging team spirit will be very much on view. In the final analysis, it is the team that capitalises on the chances few and far between, and commits the least tactical blunders, which will emerge victorious.

Indeed, this was exactly how Canada pipped Argentina to the post - by a solitary goal scored by Ken Pereira, and won the Pan American Games to qualify for the Olympics.

The sequence to the all-important goal was as follows: There was a cross from the left wing which was padded by Argentina goalkeeper Marino Chao. The rebound fell to Andrew Griffiths, who took a swipe, which was again saved by the goalkeeper. But from the resultant rebound, Ken Pereira flicked over a crowded defence to score what he would consider the most important goal of his career.

The teams had played each other six times before this game, with the result three a piece. Predictions were that this crucial game would be a very close and tight affair, with the exchanges even, and that it could go either way. Although the Canadians scored in the first half, they did come under tremendous pressure after the lemon break. It was during this period that their true strength of character was visible, as their opponents dominated the play and had forced around six penalty-corners. In all, there were 13 shots at goal by the Argies. But Mike Mahamood really came out trumps and saved the day for the Canadians. Towards the last quarter of the game Argentina threw caution to the wind and really went all out for the equaliser (which is their trademark). Yes, they eventually did beat Mike, in the last two minutes, with a fiercely struck pile driver, but unfortunately for them, it struck the post and ricocheted out of harm's way. There really ended Argentina's last chance.

It is interesting to take a look at the progress Canada has made in recent times. Their professional approach and systematic planning, hard work and belief in their ability to understand and utilise the modern game's tactics/strategy, their federation's belief and unconditional support to the coach has enabled them to move several notches up the ladder.

The Canadians always play to a plan, one that is well within their parameters of strengths and weaknesses. They know their capabilities well enough, so before they set out to for any tournament, an assessment of the other teams vis--vis their own are worked out and realistic goals set.

Their eighth position at the World Cup in Utrecht was hailed as an achievement by their own standards. Shaiz Virjee, their coach, made it clear before the tournament that Canada would be extremely content if it could finish in the top eight, a feat they eventually achieved.

Full marks to both Virjee and the Canadian Hockey Federation for their realistic perceptions and professional approach. One is reminded of Canada's highs - even after finishing eighth they did have their fair share of glory during the World Cup, notably the 3-3 draw with eventual winners The Netherlands and a victory over India.

I have known Virjee for a little over four years now and one must pay rich tributes to him for the manner in which he has moulded the team to what it is today - a tactical, fit and fighting unit. There have been many ups and downs, notably the time when Canada failed to qualify for the Atlanta Games - thereby losing out on all the years of hard work as well as major sponsorship. Well, I would not like to dwell on that controversial topic, but wish to compliment Virjee and his team for their decorum, sportsmanship, fortitude and focus. That reverse only saw them regroup and let their hockey do the talking over the next two years.

Virjee is an affable, thorough gentleman, with sound tactical and excellent game sense. He has the uncanny knack of motivating his team to limits way beyond the normal thresholds. That is why, for all his efforts, he has been named coach of the World Eleven for an exhibition match to be played in Alexandria on October 27, to mark the 75th anniversary of the F.I.H (the world body).

Peter Milkovich, Robin Abreo, Ken Pereira, Ronnie Jagdey, Bindi Kullar, and goalkeepers Mike Mahamood and Hari Kant are some of their best players and have all made a mark in international hockey. These players form the nucleus, the brain trust and main operative center of the team; any coach the world over will be proud to have them on his side.

Canada recently played a double leg four-nation tournament in Australia and emerged winners in one and third in the other. A 4-0 victory over Australia must have brought a lot of cheer and confidence to Virjee and his team. No more will other teams take them for granted and consider them minnows. Any team playing this Maple Leaf side will sure have a hard battle on their hands and will count themselves fortunate if they manage to squeeze out a victory. Which makes them strong contenders for the Olympics in Sydney.

I am certain that Virjee has already outlined his goals for the big event, and can safely predict with a degree of confidence that Canada will probably be a top six finisher in Sydney, and, in the process, ensure themselves a direct entry to the next Champions Trophy.

To Virjee and the rest of Canadian team - well done. You have already carved a niche for yourselves in every Canadian's heart. The performance graph is on the upswing; it is time to create history at the Olympics. I wish you and the team every success.

Cedric D'Souza

Sports Editor

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