BY PRADEEP PAUL
COME June, there will be top class hockey played in Singapore and Johor.
The Junior World Cup will be held at the two venues from June 7 to 21. Not only is it the first time a tournament of this standard, which features players under the age of 21, being co-hosted by two countries, it is also the first time 20 teams are being included in the fray.
Both host nations get automatic qualification.
The draw, which was done earlier this week, has placed Singapore in Group D, alongside India (runner-up to Argentina at the last edition of this tournament, at Rotterdam in 2005), Holland, New Zealand and Poland.
Former Indian hockey captain Jude Felix, who is based here and coaches the Singapore Recreation Club, Raffles Institution and St Nicholas Girls' School, speaks highly of the Singapore under-21 team but is concerned about their lack of experience at this level of the game.
Felix, who has played alongside four of the squad members, says: "The Singapore under-21 players have very good basic skills and are putting in diligent practice at the Delta ground, given their other commitments like school."
The Singapore under-21 squad's coach Lim Chiow Chuan is very gung-ho about his team's participation in this meet. "All the groups are tough, so it doesn't really matter if we have India and Holland in our group. What is crucial is that we prepare right and make the most of this opportunity," he says.
He adds that the players, who are putting in long training sessions - minimum three hours - every day, are very united and will benefit from their outing in the local Premier League as a team.
Singapore's team manager Mohammad Sharin has also told the media that his team will "treat their opponents with respect, not fear". Plus they will have the advantage of being on home ground, getting access to the World Cup venue in Sengkang once it is ready in April.
On India's chances, Felix thinks the squad is very strong and has played long enough on this stage to ensure a good finish.
He also picks other nations like Holland, Germany, Pakistan and Australia - traditional powerhouses in the sport - as the front-runners.
However, he is also impressed with the emergence of new teams at this level, like Argentina which won the last Junior World Cup. "We had never considered Argentina a contender, but suddenly they were the champs. That is great for hockey," says Felix.
The Indian juniors did fairly well at the four-nation Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney earlier this month. The team lost 1-2 to Australia in the final after having beaten the hosts by the same margin in the round-robin stage. Malaysia and Great Britain were the other two teams in the tournament.
India's coach A.K. Bansal said he was satisfied with the grouping. "Every group has got two good teams. Though Holland finished seventh in the previous edition they are a very good side. New Zealand, too, are a strong team," he told IANS.
Singapore will stage the opening ceremony, half the preliminary matches and one of the semi-finals. The rest of the matches will be played in Johor Baru's Taman Daya stadium.
THE JUNIOR WORLD CUP LINE-UP