In the first major international event of a packed year of hockey action, attention turns to the Indian city of Odisha as it plays host to the 15th FIH men’s Hockey World Cup.
Argentina and Chile are the two teams flying the flag for the Pan American Hockey Federation and both teams have tough pool action to negotiate.
For both Argentina and Chile, the hope is that this will be a tournament of firsts. For the experienced Los Leones, a gold medal has to be the aim. The team has appeared in every edition except one but has only one bronze medal to show for that consistency.
Every moment will be a first for Chile as they make their debut. The first match, the first goal, the first win. This is an exciting time to be a member of the Chile hockey team.
Turning our attention firstly to Argentina. A bronze medal in 2014 at the Hague in Netherlands is Argentina’s best finish at a World Cup. In 2018, they finished a disappointing seventh and, although they have competed at the event 14 times, only failing to qualify in 1998, the 2014 result is the only World Cup medal Los Leones has won.
Chile, in contrast to the experienced Argentinians, are making their debut at the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup. Much as the Chile women’s team did in the corresponding Women’s World Cup in November-December 2022, the Chilean team are hoping to impress the rest of the international hockey world with their South American style of flair, attack and stalwart defence.
For Argentina, the main challengers to the top spot in Pool A are the World cup aficionados, Australia. The Kookaburras are three-time World Champions having won gold in 2014, 2010, and 1986. They are also the most attacking team according to goal-scoring statistics. Over the course of 92 matches, they have scored 307 goals, and have won 75 per cent of their matches. They are no slouches in defence either: they have allowed just 107 goals to penetrate their defence at a rate of 1.16 per game.
Also competing against Los Leones in Pool A are the up-and-coming French team and South Africa, whose recent forays in the FIH Pro League indicate a team that is fast adapting to life in the top echelons of hockey’s hierarchy.
In terms of world rankings for the teams in Pool A, Australia are the current World number one team. Some strong performances in a recent test series against India – where they won four of the five test matches with some sparkling attacking hockey – has seen the Kookaburras extend their time at the top of the table, ahead of Belgium. Argentina are ranked seventh, with France 12th and South Africa 14th.
Chile will be making their debut at a World Cup and they too face a strong set of opponents in Pool C. The Netherlands are the obvious favorites to top the pool. They have a fantastic record at World cup events. They have qualified for every edition of the World Cup and have also won the title three times. The Oranje last won gold back in 1998, with their previous gold medals coming in 1973 and 1990. They came close to adding to that tally when they were runners-up to Belgium at the most recent edition in 2018.
Also putting the pressure on Los Diablas will be Malaysia and New Zealand.
Malaysia come to the tournament on the back of a fine win at the 2022 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The Speedy Tigers, as they are known, beat South Africa, Egypt and Japan before clinching the title in a tense 3-2 win over Korea.
Due to strict Covid travel restrictions, New Zealand have not seen as much international hockey over the past two years as many teams and have doubtless suffered as a result. However, they finished their FIH Pro League campaign with a draw and shoot out win over Spain. Prior to that, they had lost Pro League matches to Australia, Netherlands and India and had finished the Commonwealth Games in fifth place.
Chile’s are the lowest ranked team performing in Odisha. They currently sit at 22nd in the world rankings. Malaysia are 11th, New Zealand ninth and the high-flying Dutch are in third position after a very strong showing in the FIH Pro League Season Three.
So what can we expect of our South American teams as they take on the best of the best in Odisha?
Argentina’s Head Coach is the former Argentina goalkeeper Mariano Ronconi, who will do all he can to lead his talented group to a first men’s World Cup title. There is plenty of experience in the side with Agustin Mazzilli, Lucas Vila and team captain Matias Rey – all have more than 240 caps apiece. They also know how to win, having been part of Argentina’s Olympic gold-medal-winning team in 2016.
Backing up the experience is the youthful dynamism of Martin Ferreiro and Maico Casella, alongside the powerhouse Nicolas Keenan. This may not be Argentina’s year to win on paper, but as they proved in 2014 when they won bronze against the odds, you underestimate Argentina at your peril.
Where Argentina have an experienced team of multiple-capped players, the majority of the Chile squad are relatively new to the international game. It is a point Head Coach Jorge Dabanch has emphasized.
‘The players in Chile are engineers, doctors, … they work in other things, they study. They cannot attend international competitions and just leave for hockey. They are not interested in earning money from hockey. And that is different in every country. And every country needs to find the way to grow. And in Chile the only way is sharing life and hockey.
‘For us the problem is, we have not enough competition. We only have one [major] event every two years. Recently we played the South American event where we had five games, but only one real match, that was the final against Argentina, because the levels are very different.’
Speaking from Odisha after his team arrived ahead of their historic first appearance at a World Cup, Dabanch, who has coached in the Netherlands and Belgium as well as in Argentina says that he expects his players to show a lot of tactical nous and ‘a very big heart in every match.’
‘I think I have been able to pass on my experience, always trying to respect the idiosyncrasies of Chilean society. We have built a team that is capable of adapting to play against different styles, always respecting our way of interpreting our style, which is a mix between European and American hockey. I hope that I can give confidence to a team that has not stopped growing in recent years.’
Recognising the enormity of the challenge facing Chile, Dabanch says: ‘Our objective is to start by taking small steps, the first objective will be to score the first goal [for Chile} in a World Cup, then win the first points and this will allow us to go up in the world ranking.
'We want to compete in all the matches and offer our best version in each of the matches. We will gain experience as a team and continue to grow individually and as a group. Ending the tournament having lived a great experience that allows us to compete with the best on an equal footing.’
Argentina open the tournament with a match-up against South Africa on 13 January at 13:00 local time. Chile’s first match is the following day, also at 13:00 local time, against the Black Sticks of New Zealand.
Bhubaneswar - Rourkela
Bhubaneswar - Rourkela