1 489 days since Belgium lifted their first ever FIH Hockey World Cup title at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, the same venue played host to the opening game of the next edition. FIH Hockey Nations Cup champions South Africa taking on the 2016 Olympic champions Argentina.
The opening exchanges had an element of early tournament jitters as neither side were able to create any significant moment of quality, with both offering a glimmer of the threat available as a potential warning sign. Nic Spooner was instrumental for the African champions in curtailing the Argentinean threat in the middle of the park.
Argentina ramped up the pressure in the second quarter and were awarded a penalty corner that was superbly saved by Gowan Jones before the next awarded was well defended by Eustice. Argentina was clearly gaining the upper hand, but Gowan Jones was marshalling the defense in the same superb way he did at the Commonwealth Games last year.
That period of dominance was halted by Argentina being shown the first card of the game when Nicolas Keenan was given a yellow card for foul play and the South Africans would see out the first half with a player advantage. They were disappointingly not able to capitalize on the number supremacy with the best moment seeing a Bili Ntuli cross narrowly miss the diving attention of Keenan Horne. At half time the tournament was still waiting its first goal.
Argentina won a fortuitous penalty corner early in the second half but a poor execution from the Argentines saw Jones untroubled in the goal for the Africans. The South Africans were doing well at extinguishing the Argentine and finally had their first penalty corner opportunity in the 40th minute. The attempted variation was defended by the Argentines and the stalemate continued.
It was Argentina who struck first when Maica Casella inched in front of Gowan Jones with the slightest touch and the ball bundled home to give the South Americans the lead. They had the opportunity before the break with another penalty corner, but they wasted it again. 15 minutes remained in the opening match.
South Africa won a penalty corner after a superb referral from Dayaan Cassiem. The first was charged down with a foot. But the second saw Jacques van Tonder effort charged down superbly. Although they had the opportunity to create on the break the Argentines were frustrated by their lack of effectiveness. They were however awarded two penalty corners with the chance to stretch the lead, but they failed to add to the score line.
Ryan Julius created his own pocket of space and went for the slap finish, but it was easily saved by Santiago. Tevin Kok then had a reverse stick shot saved, this one a lot tougher for Santiago as the Africans desperately looked for and equalizer. Dayaan Cassiem asked the next question and was rewarded with a penalty corner. The run was charged down and blown for danger, but the South Africans immediately referred but the on-field decision was upheld with four minutes remaining.
Argentina slowed the game down at every opportunity as the final minutes approached. There was time for the South Africans to ask one more question but the Argentines were able to answer it and seal an opening day victory.
South Africa next play France on Monday in a pivotal game of Pool A.