RECAP: WOMEN'S NATIONAL TEAM'S CHASE FOR A WORLD CUP BERTH
By Al Mattei
The U.S. field hockey team was in residency camp in September 2001, waiting to travel to Ammens/Abbeville, France for the start of the 2001 World Cup Qualification Tournament on the 16th of the month. This competition was a repechage for the "best of the rest" field hockey teams who were unable to win outright continental championships and automatic berths for World Cup 2002 in Perth.
The Americans were just a couple of days from making the trip when, in the words of John Milton and Robert Greene, "all Hell broke loose."
Little did anyone know that the events of September 11, 2001 would send the U.S. women's field hockey team on the most tortuous, challenging journey any team, anywhere, and at any time had to take in order to get to Perth 2002.
The attacks came with a certain realization: with the grounding of air traffic all over the United States -- and by proxy, the world -- there was no way to get to France in five days.
Le Federation International de Hockee (FIH) announced that the tournament would continue as scheduled -- oddly enough, it was one of the only events in world sport that did. But in an unprecedented concession, the American team would be allowed a play-in series of three matches against the team that fell into the last qualification slot at Amiens/Abbeville.
Said FIH Secretary General Peter Cohen, “Because of the extraordinary circumstances that have brought this situation, the FIH believes that in the overall interests of hockey it is only fair and just that the USA not be deprived of an opportunity to qualify for the World Cup despite their inability to compete in this tournament.”
All the while, well-wishes were coming in to the U.S. team compound -- from Canada, Team Ireland, and the French hosts.
As one anonymous electronic message from a U.S. team member said, "It is so sad what has happened in our country, and so many lives have been affected. Every morning I wake up and think, 'Oh, good, it was only a dream,' and then realize it wasn't. It is reality and our lives will never be the same."
The Americans took time off, then had to refocus their energies to a four-game domestic Test series against South Africa. But the purpose of the trip had changed from a victory/exhibition tour in celebration of a World Cup berth to an extended training and preparation period for the last-chance qualifier.
Problem was, by the time the South Africans arrived on our shores, few knew exactly who the qualifier opponent would be. This is because another bizarre and unprecedented situation had arisen in France.
The situation was that Scotland, India, Ireland, and Lithuania, by virtue of finishing third and fourth in their respective pools, played off against each other to determine who would finished fifth through eighth at the qualifier. The Amiens/Abbeville tournament was originally intended to determine seven berths, but thanks to the FIH's decision to allow the Americans to qualify against the seventh-place team, only six guaranteed berths were at stake.
While Scotland was beating India, Ireland and Lithuania went to penalty strokes in the other fifth- through eighth-place semifinal. Lithuania had appeared to win the strokeoff, but Ireland appealed, as there was a question about order of teams in the strokeoff after the first series of five penalty flicks was tied.
As a result, the strokeoff was to be replayed the next day. Lithuania did not report to the site of competition -- not only losing the game, but losing the final World Cup berth to India as a result of the forfeit, since the penalty for not showing up was withdrawal from the tournament.
In a reversal, the FIH ruled in favor of Lithuania at a Nov. 29 meeting. The unprecedented ruling sent both Lithuania and Ireland to the 2002 Champions' Challenge in India, allowing the two teams, host India, and the United States to fight it out for those three berths.
However, both Ireland and Lithuania appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. Ireland wanted to regain its spot in the World Cup it felt it had won by default, while Lithuania sought the spot it thought it had won on the field.
Have we confused you enough, already?
Well, the start of the U.S.-Northern Alliance war against the Taliban in early October 2001 threw the Indian subcontinent into instability. Citing fear for the safety of the athletes, the inaugural Champions' Challenge (a tournament which essence, functions like the World Group of Davis Cup, feeding its winner to the Champions' Trophy, in exchange for the last-place Trophy finisher) was moved to South Africa.
The eight teams competing in the Champions' Challenge had prepared for a little higher intensity than normal; like motor racing at Le Mans, pundits and spectators prepared for a "race within a race," as more than just a berth in the 2003 Champions' Trophy was at stake. Three World Cup berths were to be up for grabs.
Nine days before the Champions' Challenge was to begin, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport threw out the FIH ruling, meaning that Lithuania was out of the Champions' Challenge and the World Cup, and the United States was obligated to play India in the aforementioned three-game series.
During the Challenge, the Americans finished fifth, including a hawkishly tense 1-1 draw with India in pool play. Despite the lack of significance in the draw, two much more significant events came out of the tournament. First, knee injuries to attacking forward Tara Jelley and corner striker Jill Reeve cast doubt on their further participation in qualifications.
Second, it was announced that the Royal Belgian Hockey Association would act as a neutral site for the US-India series. Six weeks later, however, the FIH changed its mind again, announcing that the series would go on as originally planned, on India's home soil.
It was hard to know whether US coach Tracey Belbin was relieved or exasperated when she said upon the announcement, "It has been difficult to maintain momentum when it seemed there was never going to be light at the end of the tunnel."
For there were more games to be played, this time without offensive talents Reeve and Jelley. At a highly competitive six-nations tournament in Japan, the Americans finished last. From thence, there were exhibitions scheduled in New Zealand to lead to the India series in June.
On May 21, 2002, the U.S. team touched down in New Delhi. New uniforms had been ordered from the Under Armour company to deal with the 110-degree heat anticipated for the early-evening hour at which the games would be played at Dyand Chand Stadium.
Soon afterwards, however, fighting broke out in the disputed Kashmir region of India, and rumors of involvement by al-Qaeda (the organization blamed for Sept. 11's hijackings) resulted in a U.S. State Department travel advisory, urging non-essential personnel to leave the country.
The FIH technical directors and staff didn't need to hear the warning twice. They left before the American delegation did on May 25th.
Six days later, the FIH set the qualification site for Birmingham, England. Finally, the American field hockey community seemed to breathe. Let's get this over with.
The venue and date shift was a blessing for Team USA: less than four months after tearing a knee ligament, Reeve was declared to be match-fit. She wound up starting the entire series.
The format of the U.S.-India series was resemble the playoffs of Major League Soccer. Up to three full games would be played, and the first team to five points (three for a win, one for a draw) would be declared the winner.
India and the United States drew the first two matches 1-1, just like at the Champions' Challenge. In the third game, India took a one-goal lead into the interval, whereupon the oldest player on the field spoke up in the huddle.
"I think I just tried to reassure everyone that we were OK," U.S. captain Tracey Fuchs told PlanetFieldHockey.com. "I told them not to stray to far off of what we needed to do."
Fuchs buried a penalty stroke one minute into the second half, then knocked in a corner 13 minutes later to give the Stars and Stripes the lead. Kelli Gannon sealed the win a couple of minutes afterward.
And with the final whistle, a 10-month journey ended. All told, Team USA went to four continents, played almost 25 Tests, and traveled more than 10,000 miles for a berth in the World Cup.
And every member of the national team pool will tell you that it was all worth it.