The FIH Pro League is all set to burst into action on 19 January when Spain and Belgium men play against each other at the Estadio Betera in Valencia, Spain. The first Pro League fixture in our region takes place on 26 January when Argentina men and women take on Belgium men and women at the Estadio Municipal de Cordoba.
USA women begin their campaign a week later when they travel to Argentina to face their PAHF neighbours, also at the stadium in Cordoba.
Over the course of the six months from January to June, hockey for the top nations in the world will take on a whole new dimension. The three PAHF teams currently in the FIH Pro League will be travelling first to fixtures in the southern, then to the northern hemisphere – chasing the sunshine – to play one-off matches in a game-changing global league.
There are a total of 11 nations involved. Some, like Argentina, are fielding men’s and women’s teams so the prospect of double headers – where the men and women play matches on the same day at the same place – are an exciting prospect. For the USA, where only the women’s team is qualified, then it will be single gender fixtures.
The teams participating are: Argentina men and women; Australia men and women; Belgium men and women; Germany men and women; Great Britain men and women, Netherlands men and women; New Zealand men and women; Pakistan men; Spain men, China women and USA women.
The first three months sees all the Pro League matches taking place in the southern hemisphere, then from April through to June, the teams are mostly travelling north to the USA and Europe, although Argentina will be hosting Australia and New Zealand in April and May.
At the culmination of the league there will be play-offs and a grand final, with the top four placed teams automatically qualifying for the Olympic qualifiers, which take place at the end of 2019.
That this is a huge step for hockey is undeniable. Coaches and back-up staff are understandably nervous about how something on this scale works and in the months leading up to the first matches, coaching teams have been devoting time and thought to managing the processes.
For some teams, the new Pro League will mean a complete transformation to their season. Agustin Corradini, head coach to Argentina, explained how his players will be on a different time scale to most of their compatriots: “Everything will change. Normally, in Argentina it is holidays in December and January but for the players, that will be over. We will have to adapt our schedule to an European one. That will be the main challenge. Our players will need to train their bodies to have a different calendar to any other sports players in Argentina.”
And Argentina’s captain, Delfina Merino, explained how the recent Hockey Champions Trophy in Changzhou China had provided an opportunity to try out ways of dealing with long distance travel: “We had a brutal journey to get here [China]. Argentina is really far away, so we had a lot of discussions as a group before coming, about how to prepare. We brought a lot of our own food, we arrived well in advance of playing so the players could overcome jet-lag. But, you know, we are young players with a lot of energy, so we will cope.”
For the USA women’s team, the Pro League has also caused head coach Janneke Schopman to change the current training schedule. The former Netherlands international and Olympic gold medallist explains: “As a full-time program, we normally use the months January through to May to build up our physical performance and increase our level of strength and physique next to improving our gameplay. With the Pro League and the travel that’s part of it we have to do that work earlier and try to maintain our level of fitness throughout the season.”
Like many of her fellow coaches, Schopman sees the Pro League as a step into the unknown: “The countries that have club hockey will probably face more challenges to combine international gameplay with club commitments. As for us, the amount of travel and lack of actual training time will be different than what we are used to and it’s a bit of an unknown to be honest. We are planning ahead to stay away from potential difficulties but the experience itself will show us what it really will be like.”
Despite the challenges it will provide, Schopman is full of positivity for the new global competition, seeing it as a great way to showcase the sport in the USA.
“I think the idea of the Pro League is great, the ability to play high level games is important for our program. I hope that we can showcase our sport in the stadium and on television as, in my opinion, the American public would love the fast-paced skilful game we play. I’m sure it can have a great impact on more people wanting to play the sport in the US.”
For the players, the prospect of travelling the globe and playing their sport in regular, high intensity matches is hugely exciting. For a player such as Merino, who has spent the past decade as an elite player, this is a new challenge that will provide a fresh impetus and new motivations. For the FIH 2017 Player of the Year, the most exciting prospect is playing a number of matches in front of home supporters.
“In every stadium, when you play in Argentina, it just goes crazy and, as a player, that is a fantastic atmosphere to play in. Yes, travelling to the other countries will be a great experience, but to see the crowds in Cordoba, Rosario and Buenos Aires – well that will be something really special.”
USA’s teenage goalscoring sensation Erin Matson is another player who enjoys the vibrant atmosphere created in the Argentina stadiums. “The fans are loud and energetic and I am a player who builds off that energy. That said, any country will be exciting as this league gives us the opportunity to experience many cultures and playing ambiences. I would say New Zealand will be my favourite country to visit because of how beautiful it is, and all of my experiences there have been memorable.”
For Matson, like many players currently on or embarking upon a dual sport and academic career, the Pro League has called for some careful time-management. “Balancing school and field hockey has always been one of my top priorities,” she says. “Academics are very important to me; my schoolwork comes first”.
“With this being my first spring semester of college, I will not be making it to many games overseas. Janneke and I worked hard to figure out a schedule that could balance both, and the best answer was to focus on school so I can graduate as early as possible and be ready to join the team full time.”
Where Matson is just setting out on her international career, so Kathleen Sharkey is a player who has been in the USA elite program for a number of years. The USA captain and star striker says: “For many years now in the United States we have committed to a full time centralized training program with the national team. And so I think we are prepared for the demands of the Pro League. However, there will be quite a lot more trips abroad, but I think we’re looking forward to the consistent international games that the Pro League will bring”.
“I think a challenge for us will be bringing the intensity each week for the length of the entire league. Usually we have to focus on one tournament or series at a time over the course of one or two weeks. Now we will have to be in a competition mindset for a few months. I think we’ll have to take it one game at a time and not get too focused on the future.”
With just over a month to go before the FIH Pro League starts the hockey world is waiting to see how things unfold. That there will be teething problems is not in doubt – everyone from the international body down to the newest recruit to a national team knows that the first season will present a huge learning curve for players, coaches and officials. It is a brave new world, but as Erin Matson succinctly puts it: “Incredible atmospheres, intense matches, high-stake situations, I’m looking forwards to it all beginning.”