While Argentina and the USA hammer away at each other in the top echelons of women’s world hockey, it might be worth the two hockey giants taking the occasional look over their shoulder at two teams who are fast moving up the rankings.
Ranked 19th and 23rd respectively, Chile and Uruguay are caught up in a battle for supremacy on the hockey field that is as intense as anything Las Leonas and the USA produce. The recent HWL Round One event in Chiclayo, Peru, was testimony to this. Although Chile went into the final match as favourites to win the whole competition, needing just a draw to win the event, a battling performance from Uruguay saw the blue and white team take the points and first place.
Fortunately for neutral hockey fans, the results meant both teams qualified for HWLR2, so we may well see the two south American representatives go head-to-head in West Vancouver for the right to contest Round Three and a potential place at the World Cup in 2018.
Taking a look back at recent contests between the two nations, it is clear that these teams are evenly matched. Uruguay took the honours in Peru at HWLR1, which also doubled up as the 2016 South American Championships – the goal scoring hero on that occasions was Maria Viana Ache.
Chile, on the other hand, has been consistently better in the Pan American Games. Sergio Vigil’s team finished fourth in the 2015 Pan Am Games, one place ahead of Uruguay and you have to go back to 2003 to find a Pan Am Games where Uruguay has beaten Chile.
The forthcoming Pan American Cup has also proven a happy stomping ground for Chile. In 2013 the team finished fourth, with Uruguay in sixth, and in 2009, Chile took bronze behind Argentina and the USA. Uruguay’s highest finish was a fourth place in 2001.
With Chile also racing up the world rankings – they gained four places after the last release of the rankings – you could expect the side to be confident ahead of HWLR2. But, this is where Uruguay has all the benefits of experience.
In 2015, Uruguay were the surprise package at HWL Semi-Finals in Valencia, Spain. Although Gonzalo Ferrer and his team finished in 10th place, they did win the hearts and minds of the spectators with their exciting play and exuberance on the pitch. A 1-1 draw with South Africa – who were ranked 11th in the world – demonstrated that Uruguay were neither overawed or to be under-estimated.
Speaking after the team’s adventures in Spain, Janine Stanley said: “Look, we arrived in Valencia as 29th in the world, we played against the best teams and we didn't disgrace ourselves. In fact, against South Africa (a 1-1 draw) we could have won the game and against Ireland we came close (3-2). Both those teams were ranked much higher.”
The experience had added confidence, awareness of a wide range of playing styles and “an awareness of just how fast this game can be played,” said the experienced midfielder. "Our learning curve was huge. In every game we discovered new things about ourselves and about the team as a whole."
While the event in West Vancouver has a distinctly Pan American feel to it, the teams from the PAHF area are also joined by India (World Ranking: 12) and Belarus (WR: 20). Uruguay face both teams in the pool stages and so the players’ previous experience in Valencia against the differing hockey styles of Europe and Asia will be a big advantage.
For Chile, the main challenge will come from nations they know well. Canada are ranked one place ahead of them at 18 and, in the last few meetings between the sides the Canadians have come out as victors. But confidence is high in the Chile camp and team morale has never been better says captain Camila Caram.
“Our aspiration is to get to the final in HWL2,” says the experienced Caram, who has more than 160 caps to her name. “I think the team is well prepared and we have our objectives very clear in our heads. We play a very good collective game, both when we have the ball and when we don’t have possession. We concentrate on playing as a team.”
With a trio of experienced coaches – Alfredo Castro, Sergio Vigil and Diego Amoroso – the team, nicknamed the Diablas, has travelled to South Africa, where they played test matches against the host nation, plus Belgium and China. They then played a series against Argentina. A new coaching structure, plus the test matches, has lent a new intensity to the Chile team’s preparations, says Caram.
“We learnt so many things from HWLR1. After we lost the last match against Uruguay, the whole team got extra motivation to train even harder and more frequently. We have to reverse that result if we meet them in Round Two, but we also have to beat the teams that are ranked higher than us.”
Another player from the team who is determined that Chile will make their mark on the tournament is Denise Krimerman-Losada. The striker finished as the second highest scorer in Chiclayo but her focus now is on the whole team’s defensive responsibilities. “Our biggest strength is our way of defending. We play in a very compact way when we are playing in our area. Every day you can see how the confidence is increasing in our team.”
Several players have joined the squad recently from the junior ranks and this, says Krimerman-Losada, is great for driving the team forwards. “The intensity has increased so much in the past few months. We are always giving 110 per cent. The group has increased since the incorporation of members from our junior team, so the friction and competitiveness for places has grown.”
The striker says that the team learnt a lot from HWLR1, not least how to shut out an opposition. She refers repeatedly to Chile’s compact, defensive game and says that the team was devastated to win all their matches in Chiclayo except the one that would have sealed the title.
“We are setting out to win in Vancouver and to prove that Chile is a difficult country to play against. Our preparations have been against top 10 teams and we were able to play our game. We are always in search of victory.”
The Hockey World League Round Two event takes place in West Vancouver, Canada from 1-9 April. Uruguay are in Pool A, alongside India and Belarus. Pool B comprises Trinidad and Tobago, Canada and Mexico. The opening matches see India face Uruguay, Chile take on Trinidad and Tobago, while Canada play Mexico.