Carla Rebecchi & Delfina Merino (ARG)
Argentina women have a busy calendar over the coming months. First, the Hockey Champions Trophy in China beckons. Then Las Leonas are eagerly anticipating the arrival of FIH Pro League hockey in their country as they prepare to host the world’s best teams – male and female – in the inaugural year of competition.

The Hockey Champions Trophy in China  is billed as the last event of the Champions Trophy era – the International Hockey Federation has not ruled out a return of the competition one day in the future – the tournament is one in which Las Leonas have produced some of their finest moments.

Seven gold medals in the 23 years that the Champions Trophy has been played, puts Argentina ahead of both the Netherlands and Australia [six titles apiece]. At the 2014 edition in Mendoza, one of the most incredible spectacles at a hockey match took place as a packed stadium cheered themselves hoarse as a giant replica of Luciana Aymar’s number eight shirt was ceremoniously burned after the hockey legend led her team to victory before retiring.

It is moments such as these that have helped place the Champions Trophy as one of the most popular hockey events in the international calendar, as Argentina’s Delfina Merino explains: “The Champions Trophy is the last event of the year so my hopes and expectations are to end the year in the best way possible”.

“Every tournament we play, our mindset is always to take first place. But this is also so special because it is the last Champions Trophy and, for me, it is one of the best tournaments that FIH have ever run. You play the best teams in a very short period of time so it is intense and interesting. We would love to win that tournament. But the most important thing is to enjoy it as well. We will aim to bring the title home.”

Since 2014, there have been no top flight international senior hockey tournaments played in Argentina, something that has been playing on Merino’s mind.

“Nowhere”, she says, “is like playing in front of the home crowds in Argentina. The crowd goes crazy for hockey, there is singing, dancing and the noise… it is truly crazy.”

All of which means that the Argentina hockey team is eagerly anticipating the arrival of FIH Pro League hockey in their country as they prepare to host the world’s best teams – male and female – in the inaugural year of competition.

“It is early to say,” says Merino, “But there are so many benefits to the Pro League. The prospect of so many international fixtures in a short time will really bring hockey back to the people of Argentina.”

For Merino, the Pro League will also provide an opportunity for players to experience hockey in different countries and within different cultures. While the 29-year-old is a seasoned traveler – having spent time playing club hockey in Europe as well as travelling the globe with Las Leonas – it is the new recruits to the team that will benefit most from the experiences. “It will give players the chance to see other cultures but also regularly experience different styles of play and see how other countries prepare for international games,” says the 2010 World Cup gold medalist.

“Yes, the travelling and dealing with jet-lag could pose some problems but each team will have its own way of dealing with that. It might mean a few more days off after travelling, it might mean adapting the way we train, but we will work that out as we experience this new format”.

“Every country will have its own way of dealing with the new challenges but that is also what adds to the excitement and interest of the Pro League.”

As someone who played alongside the eight-time winner of the FIH Player of the Year, and counts Aymar as a role model to herself, Merino knows the power of live sport on the public’s appreciation of the game. “It is going to be really cool to play the Pro League in Argentina. The fans will love to see international hockey in our country. New role models will be created and, while hockey is already the number one sport for females in Argentina, even more people will identify with our team. This will drive interest and passion for the sport to new levels.”

Argentina’s first home matches take place on 26 January 2019 at the Estadio Municipal de Hockey, Cordoba, when first the men and then the women take on the Red Lions and Red Panthers of Belgium.

While Merino is looking at the Hockey Champions Trophy and the Pro League as a chance to gain ranking points and more silverware, one returning squad member has even longer-term ambitions.

Carla Rebecchi is one of the best-known female hockey players in the world and has been the architect of many Las Leonas victories over the years. Playing alongside Luciana Aymar, from 2003 until the eight times FIH Player of the Year retired in 2014, Rebecchi was a perfect foil to the silky skills of the ‘Magician’. Where Aymar glided, Rebecchi harried, she is the player that defenders hate to encounter – hard-working and mercurial – she would constantly hassle the defense until they were forced into making mistakes and then she pounced.

During her long international career, Rebecchi has won everything – except Olympic gold. She has six Champions Trophy gold medals, a World Cup gold – won in Rosario in 2010 in front of a home crowd – and an Olympic bronze and silver, won at Beijing and London respectively. As captain of Argentina, following the retirement of Aymar in 2014, Rebecchi also led her team to gold at the 2015 Hockey World League Finals again in Rosario.

After the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Argentina were far remove from their usual imperious selves, Rebecchi announced her retirement. Shortly afterwards she and husband Jorge Lombi – also a renowned international hockey player with Los Leones – announced that they were expecting a baby. Rebecchi’s focus changed and little Vera became the center of her world.

But all that changed in September 2018 following Argentina’s appearance at the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup in London. The team ranked three in the world arrived in London with great hopes for a medal. Some hockey pundits had tipped them to be the team that knocked the Netherlands off their perch. However, a scrappy start to their campaign saw them lose to Germany in a thrilling 3-2 match and draw with South Africa. They scraped past New Zealand and then were knocked out of the competition by Australia. It was obvious that the young team that head coach Agustin Corradini is gradually building, still needs players of Rebecchi’s experience, especially when it comes to the big stage.

A phone call took place between Corradini and Rebecchi shortly after Argentina returned from their London misadventures. Words of encouragement from the coach, and the fact that teammate Belen Succi has already proven it is possible to combine motherhood with elite performance, were enough to persuade Rebecchi to don the blue and white of her country once more.

Speaking to the striker, she says that while she is delighted to be returning to the training squad and nothing beats the pride of pulling on the national shirt, there will be some changes in her approach. “I feel different and I now see life and hockey very differently. I didn’t think I could love someone so much as I love Vera, I enjoy everything much more, and to know she is waiting for me at home when I return from training makes me so happy.”

And like any working mum, who is combining a full-on job with motherhood, Rebecchi knows the road ahead will be tough. She says she is already experiencing that side of things: “It’s difficult because you get home tired after training and you want to rest but you can’t. Vera makes sure of that,” she adds with a laugh.

“But despite that, I’m really well organised. My husband and mother are helping me a lot!”

While Rebecchi will not be joining Merino and co in China for the Hockey Champions Trophy this November, she does envisage a time in the future when the entire Rebeccchi-Lombi clan will be at hockey events. “So long as it is not too far to travel, of course. But if the competition is a long way away then Jorge will stay at home with Vera.”

Whether Vera will be old enough to make the trip to Japan in 2020 is still an open question but there is no doubting Rebecca’s determination to be on that trip: “It is no secret, I would like to get to Tokyo 2020, it’s a dream to play another Olympic, it’s a unique tournament.”

And one has to think that while the Rebecchi trophy cabinet might be a little crowded, there is always room for that one, elusive, missing gold medal.