Canada turned on the style as they hit seven goals past a shell-shocked Italy to seal a place in the final of the FIH Series Finals, as well as an all-important ticket to the FIH Olympic qualifiers later this year.
South Africa were also looking for that all important semi-final win but it was not to be for the plucky African nation as they fell to a Begona Garcia penalty corner just six minutes from the final whistle. The celebrations among the Spanish team and the fans in the stadium, and the despair of the South Africans, were an indication of just what this match meant to everyone involved.
Canada v Italy
Both teams sang their hearts out at their respective national anthems and they gave their all in the match but, in the end it was Canada (WR:21) who steamrolled over Italy (WR:17) taking this game, and a place in the FIH Olympic qualifiers, with an emphatic victory over their high-ranked rivals.
Canada began on the front foot and a warning as to their attacking intentions came when Natalie Sourisseau drove into the circle and smashed the ball against the side of the Italian goal.
The first quarter was end-to-end stuff as Canada threw everything at the Italian defence, including some impressive 3D skills from Brienne Stairs, but Italy’s experienced duo of Chiara Tiddi and Celina Traverso at the heart of their defence meant the European team were able to take some of the heat from the Canada ‘Wolf Pack’ attack.
At the other end of the field, the Canadian defence of Shanlee Johnston, Sara McManus and Danielle Hennig was proving equally effective as they shut down the Italian forays up the pitch, which were spearheaded by Maryna Vynohradova and Jasbeer Singh.
It was in the final minute of the quarter that the breakthrough came. The first penalty corner of the match fell to Canada and Sara McManus made no mistake as she shot the ball home with precision and speed.
It was Italy’s turn in the second quarter as they won two quick penalty corners. Kaitlyn Williams saved the first – a straight shot from Tiddi – and the second was chased down by a determined Canada defence.
Canada’s second goal was sheer genius. Stairs showed some incredible stick skills to weave through the midfield. Her pass found Rachel Donohoe, who shot home on the reverse to give her side a 2-0 lead.
The game got tastier as the half counted down with both teams working hard to get the next goal. Italy were driving hard at the Canada defence but any mazy run by a speedy blue shirted player was met by a barrier of strong Canadian sticks.
Stairs was the next to get her name on the score-sheet – a goal that moved her to joint top of the goal-scoring table. Her crisp turn and shot, following sustained circle pressure by her team mates, left Natalia Schinoni unable to react in time and the ball flew into the net to give the North American team an unassailable lead.
The second half brought more pressure from Canada and for the first few minutes Italy seemed clean out of ideas. A speculative ball by Holly Stewart nearly gave Canada a fourth goal and the play just summed up her team’s approach – this was a team supremely confident in their own game.
Canada won two successive penalty corners and, although Italy dealt with the first, the second was a rocket of a shot that truly put them match beyond Italy. Karli Johansen was the scorer – a just reward for the shift she had put in at the heart of the Canada defence.
Italy threw everything they could at Canada in the final 15 minutes. Another well-struck Tiddi penalty corner was saved by Williams as she dived to her right. And for a few minutes Canada were forced to defend. But this is a new resolute Canada and, after weathering the Italian storm, they scored their fifth, a beautifully taken penalty corner from the stick of Karli Johansen.
The sixth goal came as Donohoe ran around the back of the defence and her shot bounced from an Italian stick into the goal to give her side an emphatic 6-0 lead. And the icing on the cake came for Hannah Haughn who was on hand to score Canada’s seventh goal just one minute before the final whistle.
“This moment means everything. We’ve moved to Belgium, we’ve moved from our partners and homes and we have lost our funding,” said an emotional Hannah Haughn. “So this moment for us means everything. We have come through the highs and lows and come out on top.
“We were looking to play Canadian hockey because we have been building up to this moment for almost two years now. We wanted to build up and play smart balls and I am so happy we were able to do that today. We have been about gritty defence in the past but now we are playing a forward-playing style and it was incredible to see so many goal in the net today.”
Canada 7, Italy 0 (semi-final)
Umpires: Wanri Venter (RSA), Emma Shelbourn (ENG)
South Africa v Spain
The host nation Spain (WR:7) started this must-win match the sharper and were rewarded with a penalty corner in the fifth minute. South Africa’s goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande was alert to the danger of the deflected shot and cleared well but Spain continued to pile on the pressure in the early stages of this game.
South Africa (WR:15), for their part, were easing themselves into the game, playing the ball conservatively around the pitch and attempting to force their opponents wide when they were chasing possession.
In these early exchanges Spain were the more inventive. Aerial balls from deep in the defence set up attacks and the midfield dynamo Georgina Oliva was constantly looking for a piercing pass forwards through the South African wall.
As the quarter counted down, it was South Africa who began to gain the greater share of possession. Dirkie Chamberlain showed a great change of speed to burst through the midfield and Robyn Johnson was beginning to look dangerous as she ran at the defence.
The second quarter was hard work for both teams under the hot evening sun. Neither side was giving anything and the home support began to get twitchy as Spain’s devastatingly fast attacks, particularly from Marta Segu and Berta Bonastre, came to nothing. The disciplined South African defence was running as hard and as determinedly as their opponents to shut down any scoring opportunities.
The momentum shifted the way of the African team towards the end of the half as they pressed Spain back. Marizen Marais and Lilian du Plessis were proving a handful to the Red Sticks defence but the lower-ranked team could find no final shot to trouble Maria Ruiz in the Spanish goal.
The second half was equally gruelling as both sides sought a way through. South Africa won a penalty corner early in the game but the shot was easily saved by Ruiz and both teams settled back into a pattern of attack and counter-attack.
Spanish hopes were raised just before the end of the third quarter when the team won a penalty corner. The slick routine saw Lola Riera with a chance to breakthrough but the normally reliable corner specialist sent the ball wide.
The goal that broke South African hearts happened just seven minutes from full-time. Spain won another penalty corner and Begona Garcia became a national hero as she scored the goal that will take her team to the FIH Olympic qualifiers.
“It doesn’t matter who scores the goal,” said Garcia after the game. “All that matters is that we won and we are going to the Olympic qualifiers. We always knew South Africa would be a very tough opponent. That was a very tough match and I am so pleased that we won.”
South Africa 0, Spain 1 (semi-final)
Umpires: Fanneke Alkemade (NED), Mercedes Sanchez (ARG)
Match schedule: Thursday 27 June (CET).
16:45 Italy v South Africa (3/4th)
19:00 Canada v Spain (Final)
Images: Yan Huckendubler