The World Cup is right around the corner—yes! That’s right, it’s just not the one you might think! While 2018 also saw the latest edition of the FIFA World Cup for association football played out on the world stage in Russia, it will also see the recurrence of some of the sporting world's other major tournaments. One of those will be the Women's Hockey World Cup, slated to take place this year between 21 July and 5 August. It’s no ice hockey tournament, either — it's the raw power and sheer finesse you can only find on display in the world of field hockey. 

Founded in 1974 and operated by the International Hockey Federation, the Women's Hockey World Cup falls in between runnings of the Summer Olympics and, as with other World Cups, takes place every four years. Originally only 12 teams competed for the top spot and the bragging rights of "world champion" in women's field hockey, but 2018 marks a change. The FIH chose to give the competition a big boost, increasing the number of teams to 16 in the hopes of introducing more variance and competition into the event. With the games scheduled to begin in London and the first match practically right around the corner, now is a good time to get up to speed on what's happening. What should you know about this World Cup?

A refresher on the rules of field hockey

Not up to date on how field hockey works? Though its popularity has grown, it isn't necessarily one of the world's most-watched sports. Let's quickly break down the basics of the rules for those that need a refresher course.

A regulation game occurs over two halves, each35 minutes in length. Two teams take to the pitch, which may be turf but is also frequently an indoor court with a hard surface, with tenplayers to a side plus goalkeepers. Like a typical ice hockey game, the object is to score by moving the ball into the opponent's net. However, there are some key differences regardingball handling that set this apart from other forms of hockey. While ice hockey players expect to use their bodies, especially their feet and legs, to shield the puck from opponents, field hockey players must not block the ball. Therefore, controlling possession is even more important.

Got that? It's simple enough to understand when you start watching, but it will soon become apparent that there are many layers of strategy. From choosing when to substitute players to different attacking and defending formations and beyond, there is a lot of nuance to field hockey. Of course, there's raw action, too!

How the competition works overall

So how does the Women's Hockey World Cup work in terms ofits structure? Qualifications come first, and luckily for teams who already have packed schedules, there is currently not a separate qualifying tournament to take part in before reaching the World Cup. Instead, the FIH portions out slots according to several factors. For starters, the team of the host nation always receives a guaranteed qualified spot; that's how the UK team got into this year's tournament, as London plays the host. Meanwhile, confederated field hockey leagues on five continents determine champions through their owntournaments. These five teams get automatic spots. The remaining tenslots go to the teams who did the best in the previous year's FIH Hockey World League semi-finals. With that, the roster is set! For the 2018 World Cup, we'll see these teams fight it out:

  • England
  • United States
  • The Netherlands
  • Australia
  • India
  • Argentina
  • Japan
  • Ireland
  • Germany
  • Spain
  • Italy
  • Belgium
  • China
  • New Zealand
  • South Korea

In the group stage, these 16 are dividedinto fourpools of four teams who play each other in a round-robin format. The winner from each pool gets a bye into the quarterfinals, whereas the 2ndand 3rdplaced teams have to play each other for that privilege. After that, thetournament then proceeds as any other might. By August 5, we'll be settling down to watch the gold medal game. 

Which nations historically dominate the games?

In competitions like these, it isn't unusual for one team to emerge as a dominant force in the game. Just as we once often saw repeat winners for the FIFA World Cup, nations who make multiple trips to the winner's circle aren't unheard of in this sport. In fact, there is one country that's far and away the favouriteevery year: the Netherlands. As the currently defending champions and with a whopping seventotal titles under their belts, the Dutch dominate on the field hockey pitch like no others. Going into this year's World Cup, you can bet they'll be a favouriteas they're currently ranked #1 in the world.

However, that isn't the only team with historical success at the women's World Cup. Both Australia and, in recent years, Argentina have claimed the top spot. Australia is the only nation whose ladies successfully defended their title, while Germany is the only other nation who can claim two titles. Outside of these four nations, no other team has ever taken home the gold medal at this competition. In other words, there is a wealth of potential for a new team to come in and upset the favouritesthis year. With 12 teams who've never tasted victory, it's a certainty that some of them will be hungry for the win.

Who looks set to make a run for victory this year?

Of those teams who haven't won before and aren't already considered frontrunners, who might we expect to have a breakout performance? The Netherlands is certain to come out on top in its group during the initial pool stage, but both China and South Korea could emerge victorious as the second winners in that pool. The United States has drawn a strong group, with only England as its strongest competitor. There is a chance we could see a serious Anglo-American clash in both the group stage and perhaps during the quarterfinals later as well. The English team, ranked #2 in the world, has a strong position to challenge the Netherlands for the gold medal this year. 

Germany and Argentina will face off together in Pool C, alongside Spain and relative newcomer South Africa. These latter two teams have put up a strong showing to qualify, but doubts persist about their abilities to go further than the group stage due to the strength of their competition. Finally, in the last 4-team pool, Aussies and Kiwis might have a tough time deciding who to root for as both Australia and New Zealand occupy this group. These two teams are likely to dominate their competition — but the real winners are anyone's guess right now. 

Notable players to know

Want to familiarise yourself with some of the big names and important players that will test their mettle in this Women's World Cup? Many of these field hockey athletes completed a tough tournament in Rio de Janeiro just two years ago and remain on the hunt for more titles. Keep your eyes open for some players such as:

  • Marloes Keetel: This 25-year-old Dutch player captains the team for The Netherlands and led her teammates to capture the silver medal in Rio. A tenacious player that keeps her countrywomen in formationand understands ball control, Keetelwas also on the 2014 Netherlands team that captured that year's World Cup gold medal. 
  • Alex Danson: Captain of the English team, Danson is an accomplished player with a gold medal from Rio and a number ofappearances on field hockey's world stage. Not only has she repeatedly led her teammates to victory,but Danson alsodoes it in style: she's got the most caps on record for an English player in the global arena.
  • Melissa Gonzalez: The leader of the United States players, Gonzalez is no stranger to high-pressure matches. With her first major victory coming in the Pan American Games, she's hunted a bigger title ever since. Rewarded with the title of "Best Player" during 2017's semi-finals, Gonzalez will hope for the chance to lead the US team to its first Women's World Cup title.

Get ready to cheer for your favourite team

With everything set for a lively competition, all that's left is to make your plans for spectating. While you might not be able to get tickets to attend one of the actual matches, you can bet there will be plenty of media coverage of the event to follow. Will the Netherlands come out on top for an eighth title and yet another championship defence, or will the Australians make a run for the title once again? Perhaps we'll even see a brand-new winner crowned the best in the world!

This article is exclusive to Sports Fitness, get set for your next game and shop with us for field hockey sticks and other accessories.