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Archive for May 3, 2018

May 3, 2018 — The FIH’s Olympic qualification has a twist borrowed from soccer

For the most part, over the last 30 years, the road to qualifying for the Olympics has been relatively simple for half the field. The host nation, subject to certain standards, gets to participate depending on certain standards. It was a qualification standard that kept Greece out of the 2004 Olympics and Brazil out of the last tournament.

In addition, the five continental champions get to participate. Once again, however, that is subject to certain standards. Criteria set forth by the South African Olympic Committee kept their hockey players out of Rio 2016, despite winning the African qualifier.

The other half of the Olympic field has been filled out in various ways. In past years, it has been done solely on world ranking. Then, a last-chance “repechage” qualifier was instituted — a single 10- to 12-team tournament that required a team to finish in the top places in order to make the Olympics.

In 2008, the FIH instituted a system where three six-nation tournaments filled out the last three Olympic berths. That’s the way the United States made the Beijing Olympics, through winning the Kazan qualifier.

The last two Olympic cycles, however, the non-continental qualifiers came from World League semifinal placings, as the FIH took the semifinalists with the highest ranking that had not won their continental championship.

But for Tokyo 2020, the Olympic qualifying scheme will take on a bit of a World League sensibility, progressing into a tournament resembling the 2008 qualifiers, but with a finish that is mostly familiar with soccer fans.

What’s going to happen is that the teams not participating in the Hockey Pro Series of 2019 are going to be participating in regional tournaments to qualify for three eight-team tournaments in May and June of 2019, just when the Hockey Pro Series will be concluding.

The champion and runner-up of each tournament will enter the final round of Olympic qualifying, where the top four nations from the Hockey Pro League not already continental champions, plus the top two in world rankings also not already continental champions, will form a pool of 12 teams. However, if Japan was to win the Asian Games in either gender, the pool for the final round will be 14 teams.

The teams are then seeded via world ranking and drawn against each other in a random process, The tournament is going to be a series of two-legged ties all over the globe, with the team with the most total goals at the end of two games going to the Olympics.

But unlike the UEFA Champions League, the Liga MX liguilla, or certain other soccer playoff series, the Olympic qualifying series is not a home-and-away series where an away-goals tiebreaker may come into play. Instead, both games are played at the higher-seeded country.

Now, given the expansiveness of the Hockey Pro League, with all participating countries being allowed to play equal numbers of home and road matches, I think this is the only flaw in FIH’s Olympic qualification system.

Let them play a true two-legged series. And let’s have the away-goals tiebreaker while we’re at it.