Both north and south of the Pan American Hockey Federation region are represented in India as the best teams in the world converge on the Indian city of Bhubaneswar for the 14th men’s World Cup.
Argentina and Canada will be playing for top honors at the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018 alongside 14 other teams all hopeful of lifting the coveted trophy.
For both teams a win would be a historic first. Argentina has come closest, with a remarkable bronze medal in the 2014 World Cup. Prior to that result, Los Leones had been to every World Cup except the 1998 edition but the team’s best finish had been sixth place in 1986 and 2002.
Canada have enjoyed five previous world cup adventures. Their best performance came in 1998 when they finished eighth. Their last outing onto the world cup stage was in 2010 when they finished 11th.
One of the still-playing members of the 2010 squad is Canada’s captain and long-serving forward Scott Tupper. He says the present-day squad is in a very good place with just a few weeks to go before they head off to India. At the time of interviewing, Canada had just finished a four-match test series against the higher-ranked New Zealand side. Canada won the series comfortably with three wins and a draw.
“The series in New Zealand put us in a good position moving into the last phase of preparation,” says Tupper. “We learned what things were working well for us, and where we needed a little more focus over the last month or so. It also gave us a good opportunity to train for our penalty corners, both offence and defence, leading into the tournament.”
One of the strengths of the Canadian squad is the high level of experience they have within the squad. Of the players going to Bhubaneswar, 12 players have more than 100 caps. Aside from Tupper, who currently has 283 caps, midfielder Mark Pearson has 245 caps, Richard Hildreth is on 181, goalkeeper David Carter has 170 and Iain Smythe has 172. Many more players are in the 70-100 cap bracket. Tupper says this has led to a high level of confidence in each other and the knowledge that can only come from competing with each other at the toughest of tournaments.
At the other end of the scale, one of the youngest and newest recruits to the squad is Jamie Wallace. At 19, Wallace is the youngest player in the squad but has been part of the senior set up for more than a year. He has previous experience of playing elite level sport in the other version of the game – ice hockey.
Argentina also have some experienced heads in their side. At 39, Juan Vivaldi is one of the oldest players to compete at a World Cup. The goalkeeper’s 246 caps are eclipsed however by the cap collections of Pedro Ibarra (263), Juan Lopez (269), Lucas Rossi (206) and the unstoppable Matias Paredes, who currently has 336 caps to his credit. While Argentina’s squad had not been announced at time of writing, it is pretty certain that most if not all the old-timers will be making their presence felt in Bhubaneswar.
The team is led by 42-year-old German Orozco. He has big shoes to fill as his predecessor, Carlos Retegui, led Argentina to a first Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016 after masterminding Argentina’s resurgence following the 2012 London Olympic Games. Retegui’s place in the annals of coaching history was assured in 2014 when he led both the men’s and women’s teams to bronze at the Rabobank Hockey World Cup. The result was particularly pleasing for Los Leones as they had entered the competition ranked 11th in the world.
But Orozco is not a man to be phased by the reputations of others. He has his own strong hockey portfolio. Not only did he play for Argentina in two Olympic Games (Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004), but he also enjoyed a successful career playing club hockey in Europe, notably in Hamburg, Germany and for Orange Zwart in the Netherlands.
A fourth-place finish at the Rabobank Hockey Champions Trophy in Breda perhaps wasn’t the result Los Leones were looking for in Orozco’s first foray into top-flight hockey. Most concerning were the losses to both India and Pakistan, suggesting that Argentina hadn’t come to terms with the Asian playing style.
In an interview with hockey.nl leading up to the Champions Trophy, Orozco said he was focusing on the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018, and in particular, molding together his core of experienced players and the new generation of Argentina hockey stars.
Since the Champions Trophy, Argentina has been on its travels and seen fortunes improve. A four-nations event in Germany against the host nation, France and Ireland saw them finish in second place behind Germany.
They then crossed the world to take on the world number one side and reigning World Cup champions, Australia. A confidence-boosting win at the 2018 Darwin International will have raised the excitement levels in Los Leones camp as they seek to add World Cup gold to their Rio Olympic gold medal.
As the final weeks of preparation count down, Argentina are back at their base camp at Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires. Here, they are going through some tough training sessions to ensure they are physically and mentally in the right place.
Fitness will certainly not be an issue for the team in blue and white. Over the past few months, Orozco has made sure his players are at the height of fitness with an intensive program of physical work on the athletics track, in the gym and pool.
“The mentality among the players is one of single-minded determination to win the trophy.” says the head coach, “Many of these players are Olympic champions and do not want to settle for that alone.
“The players know that what they achieved in Rio came as a result of hard work. To repeat that success will be very difficult but we will try to build on that achievement. We have taken stock of the Olympic success and we will use what worked well and re-evaluate the things we know we can do better.”
What the spectators can certainly expect from Orozco’s team is a lot of fast, attacking hockey. He has promised that his side will be “attacking” and “protagonists in every game,” although he is quick to stress that the defensive side of things will still be key to success.
The head coach knows the pressure is on. His side are number two in the FIH Hero World Rankings and the reigning Olympic champions. It is a weight that Orozco acknowledges: “For me, there is the pressure that comes with leading one of the best teams in the world. But this is something I will thrive on and the pressure will certainly not take my focus off the goal.”
Argentina will be competing in Pool A, where they face Spain (WR:8), New Zealand (WR:9) and France (WR:20).
Canada will be competing in Pool C, where their opening game is against Belgium (WR:3). They then play South Africa (WR:15) before facing the cauldron that comes from playing India (WR:5) in front of the vociferous home crowd.
Bhubaneswar, India - November 28 to December 16