Spain the spoilsports again as Ireland’s men wait on Olympic qualification

Ireland can still book a place at Paris 2024 with a victory in Sunday’s bronze-medal match

Spain 2 Ireland 0

Over a 24-hour period in Valencia, Spain proved to be the bane of Irish hockey. A day after they beat Ireland’s women in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-finals of their Olympic qualifier, the hosts saw off the challenge of the Irish men at the same stage of their tournament, a 2-0 win sealing their slot in Paris this summer and a place in Sunday’s final.

All of which means that both Irish teams have one last chance of qualifying for the Olympics, the women playing Britain in their third place play-off on Saturday (2.30pm Irish time), the men taking on South Korea in their bronze medal game on Sunday (also at 2.30pm). Both games will be shown live on the RTÉ News Channel and Player.

The higher-ranked Spain were always going to be a major hurdle for the Irish men, the contrasts in the teams’ Olympic pedigrees stark. The Spanish have not failed to qualify since 1956, Ireland only making it to the Games once since independence, in Rio eight years ago.

But in a wet and windy Valencia, Ireland held their own in the first half of the game, defending solidly and passing the ball crisply, using the full width of the pitch to stretch their opponents. Still, Spain had the better chances, the superb Gerard Clapes twice creating clear openings for forwards with incisive passes from deep, and also forcing a fine save out of David Harte.


Ireland’s best chance came early in the second quarter when Daragh Walsh won them the game’s first penalty corner, but Lee Cole’s resulting shot was comfortably saved by Luis Calzado.

It was in the third quarter that Spain as good as wrapped up their victory with two goals from penalty corners in the space of four minutes. The first came after Cole had brilliantly turned José Basterra’s strike on to the left post, only for Rafael Vilallonga to force the rebound past Harte, and then Marc Miralles made it 2-0 when his sweep deflected off Cole’s stick and in to the goal.

Johnny McKee came closest to pulling a score back when Jeremy Duncan set him up, but Calzado saved from the Banbridge forward. Spain forced two more corners early in the final quarter before contenting themselves with soaking up Irish pressure, a double save by Calzado from Shane O’Donoghue three minutes from time putting the contest to bed.

Irish coach Mark Tumilty had no complaints about the result. “Spain came at us strongly in quarter three and got the better of us, they deserved their win. Going into this tournament, based on world rankings, we thought we might have to go to the bronze medal match, so we are where we expected to be – and we have prepared for that. We just need to be more clinical at taking our opportunities in front of goal if we are going to achieve our target.”

And while Korea are ranked two places above them, their form in the tournament – not least that of their defence – should leave Ireland fancying their chances. They conceded eight goals in their three pool games, including four in 11 minutes to rank outsiders Egypt, and shipped four more to Belgium in their semi-final. There’s no little encouragement there.

The women have a bigger task. Britain – which is effectively the England team, just three Scots and one Welsh player in their squad – are five places above them in the world list and possess a mountain of top level tournament experience. They have four survivors from the team that won Olympic gold in 2016, and 10 from the squad that won bronze in Tokyo in 2021.

They’ve had two defeats in the tournament so far, though, to Spain in their pool and Belgium in the semi-finals, so their form, by their standards, has been ropy enough. But aside from their 8-0 thumping of Ukraine, Ireland, while being defensively sound, have struggled for goals thus far, being kept scoreless in two of their four games. That needs to change if they are to upset the odds against Britain.

Ireland: D Harte, L Madeley, T Cross, S O’Donoghue, L Cole, S Murray (capt), M Robson, N Page, J McKee, D Walsh, J Duncan. Subs: K Marshall, M Nelson, P McKibbin, J Lynch, S Hyland, B Johnson.

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Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times