Soledad Vilar is a member of the Uruguay national team although most recently she has been one of the coaching team that led Uruguay to the winner’s podium at the inaugural FIH Hockey5s tournament. 

Over the course of the two-day event, Uruguay played, and defeated, top ranking teams such as India and South Africa as well as Poland and the host nation Switzerland, who they beat convincingly in the final.

‘It was an intense few days,’ says Soledad. ‘Each day was three matches of 10 minutes each way, so it was a quick turnaround from one match and one opponent to another. And these games are pretty much non-stop so it is all out effort on the pitch.’

‘It is a new format and there were surprises for all the teams I think. No-one was used to it really and, for us, we just learnt game by game as we went along. We also learnt how to play each team that we faced as well, because these are teams that we do not normally get the chance to play against, so there was a lot of learning going on.’

Hockey5s is closest in format to indoor hockey. There are five players on the pitch at any one time, including a goalkeeper. The ball can be played off the boards, so there is little let up in the pace of the action. Goals can be scored from anywhere in the attacking half of the pitch, although Soledad said that the majority of goals scored in Lausanne were from close range, often with a ball fired in and a deflection.

‘Hockey5s is very different in many ways to 11-a-side,’ says Soledad. ‘It is so non-stop, you need to be switched on all the time. As a coaching team we had it all planned out so we knew who would be going on the pitch and when, because it was so fast that the players did not need to be thinking about that, we had to make sure all they had to think about was what they were doing on the pitch.’

The hockey event was held in the centre of Lausanne, the city known as the Olympic Capital because so many sporting federations are based there, including the IOC. The pitch was right on the edge of Lake Geneva. As a result, people who were walking past and had no idea what hockey was about were drawn in to watch the games. 

‘Switzerland is a bit like Uruguay in that it is a small country and not that many people are involved in hockey, so this was a good way of bringing hockey to a new audience,’ says Soledad.

In the final itself, which was watched by a stadium full of supporters – mainly Swiss – Uruguay went behind to an early goal but the team remained composed and were soon back on even terms. Captain Manuela Vilar scored twice and Teresa Viana scored the third goal. The day was made more special for Teresa as she was voted Best Player of the Tournament and Top Scorer. 

Soledad herself is well-versed in European hockey. She has been a member of the Uruguay national team for more than 10 years but she plays for the Dutch Hoofdeklasse team MOP and is also a technical director for the youth teams at the club. With this pedigree, and as a well-respected member of the national squad, she was a useful addition to Nicolas Tixe’s coaching team, even though she was only with the players for three days leading up to the tournament.

For the Uruguay players who travelled to Lausanne, this was a huge learning opportunity. It wasn’t just about what they did on the pitch, this was an experience that taught them how to play after long hours travelling, how to enjoy different cultures, how to cope with time zones. These are all crucial to the development of an international mindset among the players. 

Talking about the team’s success, Soledad says the Uruguay athletes are always willing to listen and learn. ‘My message to the players was to stay focused, and that is what they did, particularly in the final when they were 1-0 down.’

The 11-a-side Uruguay national women’s team is ranked 26th in the world but has aspirations to get into the top 12. One of the ways this will be achieved, Soledad believes is through the experiences of playing overseas, whether in tournaments such as the Hockey5s or as individuals – she is one of a handful of players who play for hockey clubs in either Europe or Argentina.

'To have players regularly competing in other leagues and then bringing that experience back to Uruguay is really important,’ she says. ‘It is not easy to get top quality playing experience in Uruguay. We recently got our first water-based pitch in the country and that is a big step along the way but we need quality club competition within Uruguay like the leagues they have in Netherlands or New Zealand or Belgium. But we are on the way.’

Prior to the event in Lausanne, Hockey5s had split hockey fans into two diverse camps. For some, the idea of a five-a-side format, with the ball being struck from anywhere in the attacking half was both unnecessary and dangerous. Unnecessary because it so closely replicated indoor hockey and dangerous because of wild shots from anywhere.

Those who support the new format speak of opening the game up to nations who just do not have the funding for an 11-a-side infrastructure. For this audience, the beauty of Hockey5s lies in its simplicity.

Soledad had this to say: ‘The Hockey5s gave us the opportunity to win something. At 11-a-side events we go along and we are competitive but, right now, we will not win a World Cup or an Olympic title or even a Pan Am title. Hockey5s gives us the chance to win something and have real pride in what we do within our sport.

‘It was nice for us to be champions because we train hard all the time and this is the chance to be rewarded for those efforts. At the Hockey5s we played India and we beat them, we do not normally have the chance to do that.

‘If Hockey5s was to become a second format of the sport at the Olympics, it would be a great opportunity for the second tier of teams to win Olympic medals.’

For the Uruguay team heading back from Switzerland there will be quite a home coming. Soledad says there is a lot of pride about the team’s achievements and a hope among the hockey community that this title and this sense of achievement is just the start of a new chapter for Uruguay hockey.