Junior Hockey World Cup: Vivek Prasad and Abdul Rana among players to watch out for

Vivek Sagar Prasad runs with the ball during the Tokyo Olympics. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

While the Junior World Cup is the launch pad for many hockey talents, there are a few players on whom many eyes will already be trained even before they step onto the field at the Kalinga Stadium. For many, the Junior World Cup will be the highlight of their careers. Others, like India's Vivek Prasad, with an Olympic medal and an Arjuna Award, will already be looking to become regular members in their countries' senior national teams in the years to come.

Vivek Prasad

India, Midfielder

Vivek Sagar Prasad had a chance to compete at two Junior World Cups but missed out in Lucknow in 2016 after picking up a horrific collarbone injury. It's unlikely he would have much regret over how his career has shaped up though. Ever since he became the second-youngest player to make his senior debut at the age of 17 years 10 months and 22 days back in 2018, Prasad has become a crucial part of the senior squad, culminating in a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Prasad, who will be the only Olympic medalist at the junior World Cup, will be critical to India's efforts of retaining their Junior World Cup title. Although training with the senior team, Prasad has played every tournament the junior squad has been a part of. As he looks to end his junior career with a title, the playmaking abilities of the 20 year-old center half, who is expected to be one of the next big things, will be crucial for India's forwards.

Anuar Akimullah

Malaysia, Forward

Captain of the Malaysian hockey team, Akimullah turned heads at the 2018 Youth Olympics, where he scored an eye watering 22 goals in 7 matches over the course of the tournament. Although that competition was a five-a-side tournament, Akimullah wasn't just sounding the boards against the minnows. Akimullah was critical to Malaysia's success in that tournament, scoring two goals in the final, leading his side to an unexpected gold medal over pre-tournament favourites India. Akimullah has already made the transition to the senior squad, representing them in 17 games, scoring three goals, including a brace against the Netherlands. Akimullah had said before the World Cup that his side will look to make it out of the group stage and he will need all of his experience and goal-scoring abilities in place if Malaysia are to finish in the top two of a pool featuring South Africa, 2016 silver medalists Belgium, and a Chile side who had beaten Argentina in the 2021 Junior Pan American championships.

Abdul Rana

Pakistan, Defender

Captain of the Pakistan side, Abdul Rana leads a side, which despite an illustrious tradition in the sport, has struggled with a deep malaise of late. Pakistan appeared on the men's Junior World Cup podium in each of the first five competitions, played between 1979 and 1993. Since then, two fifth place finishes have been the best they have achieved, coming in 1997 and 2009. Despite the fall, the men in green are still capable of turning out inspirational performances, completely at odds with their standing in world hockey. Perhaps the most remarkable instance in recent times would be their performance against Netherlands in the 2019 Olympic qualifiers in Bhubaneswar, where they held the then World Cup finalists 4-4 in the first leg.

Rana, then playing just his third senior match was part of that squad. While Pakistan did not make it to the Olympics eventually, that match must serve to inspire Rana as he returns to Bhubaneswar faced with an uphill task once again. Ranked 18th in the world, Pakistan are placed with Argentina, Germany, and Egypt in their Pool. With both Argentina and Germany ranked higher than them, making it to the knockout stage will be an uphill task for the neighbours.

Thibeau Stockbroekx

Belgium, Forward

Thibeau Stockbroekx has no shortage of family inspiration coming into the World Cup. Brother Gregory was part of the side that won silver in the 2016 edition in Lucknow, while Emmanuel Stockbroekx was a regular member of the rampant Belgian side that won gold at the 2018 World Cup and a silver at the 2016 Olympics. Thibeau isn't too far away from becoming a regular member of the senior squad as well. The 21-year-old, who plays as a forward, made his debut for the Red Lions in the pre-Olympics build up and was part of their squad that played in the Pro League last month.

While Belgium haven't seen many players leave the sport following the Olympics, Thibeau is expected to be part of the nucleus of that group going forward. He's expected to be a key figure at the Junior World Cup as well, being the only player from the senior squad to be given permission to play here. Junior national coach Jeroen Baart certainly thinks so. "He's a very strong, fast forward who is very good defensively and also very good on the ball inside the circle," Baart said before the tournament.

Benedikt Schwarzhaupt

Germany, Defender

Germany are the most successful nation in the history of the Men's Junior World Cup, having claimed the title on six occasions and medaling at 10 out of the 11 competitions staged to date. How they do in Bhubaneshwar will have a lot to do with how Schwarzhaupt does at the back of the field. He's tasted success at the junior level, winning the Euro Hockey U-21 Championships with the German team back in 2019. He's already got a brush with international senior hockey as well having played 8 matches with the senior squad.

Despite recovering from a bout of COVID-19, he was even in the running for a place in the Olympic squad before eventually missing the cut. Schwarzhaupt certainly believes the stint would serve him well. 'If you have played some senior hockey, you already have a certain standing and leadership role within the junior group. It is not that you are the 'star' of the group, but you have already had experiences that you can give back to the group. The biggest difference is the physicality of the senior game. You learn to play 'men's' hockey and that gives you experience of faster, harder hockey. You have a little more space at junior level," he was quoted as saying.

Schwarzhaupt's potential has been noted by others, including Christopher Ruhr, player of the tournament at the 2013 Junior Hockey World Cup. While Ruhr, now a key player in the senior squad plays as a forward, he has high praise for the centre back. 'Benedikt did very well [when he joined the senior squad for FIH Hockey Pro League matches] and stepped up as as central back, especially when we played Argentina. He is likely to be a standout player at the Junior World Cup.'