Delfina Merino has just been voted the FIH Female Player of the Year. As she accepted the prize earlier this month at the Hockey Stars Awards in Berlin, the Argentinian forward and regular captain was visibly emotional. She swiftly played down the comparison with the last Argentine female player to win the award, Luciana Aymar: “No, no, Luciana has won it eight times, me, just the once.”
“Sometimes crazy, you know what I mean”, said Delfina’s father Gabriel before speaking of the enormous pride and love he felt when he watched her receive the award. “No, don’t interview him”, she said jokingly, turning away with embarrassment. Gabriel spoke of the way hockey had always been a part of life in the Merino household. The rapport between father and daughter was obvious and it’s also clear that the support of family and friends is a hugely important factor in Delfina’s success.
She recalls standing pitch side: a five-year-old holding a miniature stick as first her mother and then her father played in club matches at Banco Provincia – the same club Delfina plays for now. Some of her closest friends are those people she played hockey with as a youngster at the club. She is also deeply proud that her brother Gonzalo is now part of the men’s national side and represented Argentina as they won gold at the 2017 Pan American Cup.
And her friends are important too. “I think about things sometimes – when I have to miss parties or I can’t celebrate birthdays with friends and its then I realise that I have great friends because they never push me. If I can’t go out because of training, they support that. They never say ‘oh, come on Delfi,’ instead they say “ya, ya, you must go to sleep and tomorrow you must win.’ When you make those sort of sacrifices in your social life, it is important to know that friends understand why.”
When she was 21, Delfina took the decision to leave the close-knit family group and the network of friends to play hockey in the Netherlands. It was 2010 and Argentina had just won gold at the 2010 World Cup. “It had been intense in the build-up to the World Cup,” says Delfina. “Agustina Soledad García was already playing in Europe for Dutch club Stichtse and I had always really admired her, so I decided to go too. At that time I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and try some new things. I made some great friends and it was a really nice time.”
The club structure in Netherlands is the envy of the hockey-playing world and Delfina had a great time playing for the Hoofdeklasse [premier division] club. For a player of Delfina’s ability, the opportunity to play week in, week out, for a club that has seven water-based pitches and alongside the world’s best players was something that couldn’t be passed over.
“There is such a different structure in the Netherlands,” explains Delfina. “At my club in Argentina we don’t even have a field, we rent one and we play on a sand-based astroturf. In Holland, the clubs have six or seven water-based pitches."
Delfina returned to Europe after the 2016 Rio Olympics. Argentina had finished in a lowly seventh position and, as she explains, “I just needed some fresh air in my head. I wasn’t tired of the national hockey scene but there had been a lot of pressure and I just needed some space to concentrate on just me and my hockey.”
The club also arranged for Delfina to work part-time with a law firm specialising in sports law. Now seven years into a law degree, this was the perfect combination of work and hockey. With no Soledad García at the club, Delfina was on her own. Her boyfriend travelled with her for the first few weeks but then she was living like a Dutch native, working during the day and training and playing in her spare time. It was just the break she needed and she returned fresh and ready for the 2017 international season.
For 2018 however, all of Delfina’s attention is focused on one goal. The World Cup in London. Argentina last won the cup in 2010, and they took bronze in 2014. The team has changed beyond recognition since then, although the co-captains Belen Succi and Delfina remain. Getting the new crop of Leonas working together is very much at the forefront of Delfina’s mind.
“For Belen and myself, the challenge is to transmit to the girls how things work, inside the field but also outside the field.
“Being a Leona in Argentina is not just wearing your shirt and being a good player, it is about different values and different ways of living. The things you do or don’t do. We have to show our values consistently through our behaviour. It is not simply a case of saying “you should do this, or you should do that’: we must show the way as well.”
Delfina is quick to say that the 'Leonas way' are not set in stone. She realises that players will come to the squad with individual ideas and different values. But they will only be chosen if the coaching staff like those values and thinks they will add to the whole squad. And the passion and commitment to Las Leonas had to be part of the whole team’s psyche.
“We have to feel things intrinsically. If we do not feel it inside, it is difficult to live the Leonas way. It is a challenge for us though. We have been in the squad a long time and the generation coming through has changed a lot. Maybe there is a different way to transmit things to the younger players.
“For me, when I joined the Leonas there were a lot of players who had been there for a while, we just entered as a couple of young players and quickly learnt how to be a Leona. Now there are a lot of younger players, bringing their own values – but I like that, I really like their energy.’
One challenge that Delfina and Belen face is getting to know the younger players. It is one of the reasons playing in Europe is off the table for the moment. “I need to be in Argentina because I need to feel like I really know the team members. To be part of it all. You can’t expect to get to know your players if you are overseas and just fly in for camps and tournaments. And like I said earlier, it is off the pitch as much as on it. I should know the players, their parents and their families.”
So, with a Player of the Year award on her trophy shelf and a World Cup to look forward to, there is no danger yet of Delfina leaving the game?
“I have never felt like I am done with all this. I have never had that feeling but of course sometimes when I do get really tired, I can be sitting in a lecture at university and I feel my eyes closing because I am so tired and I think “Oh my god, what am I doing” but those are rare lapses. When I have them all the time, then I will know it is time to stop.
“I look back at the end of each season and I ask myself: ‘Was it worth it,’ and every season I think ‘Oh yes, that was worth it.’ It is important to remember that whatever you do in life, there are times when it is tougher and more stressful but that is life. If we leave London with a gold medal, then all the hard work is definitely worth it.”