Irish men’s hockey coach Craig Fulton is hopeful Ireland’s performances in qualifying for the Olympic Games can have a future dividend not just for hockey but for team sports in general on the island.
His side became the first Irish team of any denomination since 1948 to reach the Games and duly picked up a maiden 4-2 win against Canada on Thursday.
It set up an all-or-nothing tie for a quarter-final place with Argentina on Friday evening in which Ireland ultimately came up just short 3-2, conceding the killer goal with nine minutes remaining.
To reach and compete at Rio, Ireland’s men had to fundraise €225,000 over the summer months to support their efforts at a competition where they were the only outfit not training together on a full-time basis.
Previously, Hockey Ireland threatened to withdraw the men’s team from the Champions Challenge I tournament in 2012 in Argentina due to a lack of finances. Then, they raised €65,000 to be able to travel.
Despite such barriers, Ireland now lie on the brink of the world’s top ten. But Fulton believes that such fundraising drives cannot continue and more sustainable options need to be found.
“These guys have given a lot to be here, to play at this level,” he said in the wake of the Argentina match. “There’s 10 professional outfits here while Brazil got a lot of good support as hosts.
“We created support through different ways in out Pledge and Obsessed campaigns we ran but I want that to come to an end.
“Actually, I don’t want this to happen to any team sport that makes the Olympics – if its basketball or hockey or whatever – it needs to be fully funded so they can really compete to their best because it is hard out there.
“If we can get into a room with government and rewrite the [financial] structures for team sport, it would be amazing. We would like to plan for the next four years how we go about that because there is definitely something special here. If we haven’t inspired a group of new hockey players back home, I don’t know what will.”
Reflecting on the tournament, Fulton hoped his side’s performances in pushing the world number 3 Germany, India (five) and Argentina (seven) to one-goal defeats showed the potential that is there to push on further.
“Overall, I just hope we have raised the profile of Irish hockey, especially in Ireland, because this team has sacrificed a lot to get to this point and to perform at this level. And it is a big stage to perform on. The guys have done Ireland proud.
“This tournament is like nothing else and you can’t explain it to anyone about what it is going to be like. Once the players leave this environment and reflect back on where they were and what was at stake, they will realise how big it was and, hopefully, we will have this group back and qualifying for Tokyo.”
The international treadmill starts again next March with Dublin hosting World League Round 2, the first stage of the World Cup qualifying process, an event Ireland has not qualified for since 1990.
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