The aim of the inaugural FIH Hockey Pro League was to create an exciting home and away global league that would introduce hockey to new fans and create an exciting live sports event at venues around the world.
And in so many ways the new league has delivered. In 17-year-old Mackenzie Allessie, USA women have found a new star. For Argentina, it is the old guard who are leading the way as Carla Rebecchi stormed back onto the international stage after the birth of baby Vera with two Player of the Match performances in the opening two games the Pro league season. And the 14 men of Argentina, five of them making their debut, put paid to a resolute New Zealand with a sparkling performance that bodes well for Los Leones’ future.
Of course, as expected with a brand new concept, there have been teething problems: notably India and Pakistan’s withdrawal – the former by choice, the latter after they were suspended amid financial concerns.
Spain men and Belgium women took the places vacated by India, but Pakistan’s withdrawal was so late that there was no time to find a replacement. This means the inaugural FIH Pro League has eight men’s teams and nine women’s teams.
At the culmination of the league, the teams finishing in the top four positions will automatically go to an Olympic qualifying event. There are also ranking points available for all the teams depending upon where they finish in the Pro League.
Also to be expected at a new event is the unexpected and that was certainly the case when Germany arrived in Argentina. First the women endured four weather breaks during the match and subsequent shoot-out as thunder and lightning crashed around the stadium in Buenos Aires and then the men’s match was abandoned altogether. It was a situation that caused Match Manager Lurah Hess considerable torment.
“While weather was creating havoc on the pitch for the Argentina and German women, I was in contact with the International Hockey Federation to discuss the plan for weather disruption and managing a card suspension at the same time”, she says. Multi-tasking doesn’t come near describing Hess’s balancing act for those moments.
“Additionally,’ laughs Huss as she reflects back, “while we were on a weather delay, the TV cameras turned on me to explain the situation. It is rarely a good situation when a technical official is in the spotlight. I certainly hope the old adage of “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is true.”
And so to the FIH Pro League action, where our continent is represented by Argentina men and women, and USA women.
The honour of opening the women’s Pro League event fell to Argentina women (FIH World Ranking: 4) as they welcomed the lowest ranked team in the competition, Belgium (WR:13). The honour of umpiring the first Pro League women’s match also fell to a PAHF representative as Maggie Giddens took charge. “It has been awesome to be a part of the Pro League an umpire,” she says. “Every week it has been showcasing fast, exciting quality hockey.”
A solid 2-0 win against Belgium in front of a sell-out crowd at the Estadio Municipal de Hockey in Cordoba meant that Argentina were also the first women’s team to win points in the new Pro League.
The men were unable to repeat the feat, as they fell foul of a Belgium side that were buoyed by their recent victory at the World Cup. The 4-2 loss added insult to the fact that Belgium had also recently leapfrogged both Australia (WR:2) and Argentina (WR:4) to become the number one ranked side in the world.
It has been three years since Argentina last hosted a FIH international tournament – the 2015 women’s Hockey Champions Trophy was the last such occasion – and the huge crowds showed they had been missing top flight hockey.
Mercedes Margalot, former Las Leonas, Olympian and now ESPN commentator says: “The Pro League in Argentina has been very well received. Both in Cordoba and in Buenos Aires the tickets were sold out quickly and people were eager to watch both the men’s and the women’s teams. It has also been watched by thousands on television as well. People here love hockey, not only was there was a huge support for Argentina’s team, but the supporters were cheering on the opposition as well.”
The next women’s match was an all-PAHF affair as USA (WR:12) travelled to Cordoba to take on Las Leonas.
Janneke Schopman, the USA head coach is presently in the middle of rebuilding her squad after a raft of retirements followed the Vitality Women’s World Cup. Despite this, it was the USA, via the skill and verve of squad newcomer Mackenzie Allessie, who produced a moment of magic for the visiting side when she jumped onto a poor clearance from Argentina’s goalkeeper Belen Succi before slotting home from a tight angle.
Things got even better for USA in the second period when they doubled their lead through Lauren Moyer, who was celebrating her 50th international appearance.
Going into the final quarter, USA might have believed they had won all three points but, as so often has happened in the past, it was Carla Rebecchi who came to the rescue. The 34-year-old showed a blistering turn of pace to split the USA defence before rounding the goalkeeper, Kealsie Robles, and halving the deficit.
Rebecchi then played a crucial part in Argentina’s equaliser, sending a flicked penalty corner effort towards goal for captain Delfina Merino to touch home, sparking noisy jubilation in the stands.
The ensuing shoot-out went the way of the host nation, with Merino, Silvina d’Elia and Lucina von der Heyde all scoring before Belen Succi denied Nicole Woods with a diving stick save to ensure her team emerged as 3-1 winners and took the bonus point.
Both USA and Argentina women then faced the toughest of challengers as the world number one side, The Netherlands, came calling. Both PAHF teams fell to Alyson Annan’s team, USA lost 5-0, while Argentina lost by much narrower 2-1 scoreline.
The Argentina men’s side fared much better: the old guard of Matias Paredes (2) and Lucas Vila (2) were the goalscorer in Los Leones thrilling 4-3 victory over the Dutch.
The rain-affected match between Argentina and Germany saw Las Leonas take the bonus points after winning the shoot-out as the match finished 2-2. The women’s match was halted four times, the men didn’t even get to start the game, so bad was the weather. It was a situation that sent Gonzalo Peillat to Twitter to vent his annoyance: “What would happen if a team has three of its matches cancelled and because of the ‘one point per cancelled match’ system and, as a result, they aren’t able to finish in the top four and go to the Olympic qualifiers. We need a better system.”
Commenting on the situation, Mercedes Margalot added: “It was unbearable that due to weather conditions a game was canceled. The teams should try to stay at least one extra day to preventing something like this. We all know it might happen, it is not unusual in Argentina to have storms.”
Margalot added that under the current rules, if a match is cancelled before it has finished, then the game is counted as a draw. It is something with which she vehemently disagrees. “It shouldn’t be like that, what is you are winning 4-0? In that case, you should consider the winning team taking two points, and the other team one point. If not, you are not recognising the achievements of the for team that’s winning.”
Both USA and Argentina’s next trips were across the water to Oceania. The trip proved an unhappy hunting ground for USA as they were beaten by both New Zealand and Australia. Captain Kat Sharkey summed things up when she said: “I think we have learned some valuable lessons that when we are down at their end attacking we need to be switch on in defence because they are really good on the counter attack. I think we were able to create a lot of opportunities, but need to keep working on being able to put the ball over the line.”
It was a different story for Argentina women as they won both their encounters. However, it was Argentina men who performed a remarkable feat, beating New Zealand with a team that was missing a galaxy of stars – among them Juan Vivaldi, Gonzalo Peillat, Pedro Ibarra and Matias Paredes – and with debutant players. It is a sign that German Orozco and his coaching staff are reaping the benefits of a strong development system.
As the action transfers from the Southern hemisphere to the Northern hemisphere, Argentina women are currently in second place behind the Netherlands. USA are in ninth position just behind Great Britain. Argentina men are in fifth place, a few points behind Germany.
There are inevitable hiccoughs with a new league and a new playing format. It is tough on the players, coaches and team staff as they have to leave family and jobs for long periods of time. It is tough on the officials, with both Maggie Giddens and Lurah Hess admitting it was only because of very understanding family and work colleagues that they could handle the demands of the Pro League.
Cameras have panned on empty seats in stadiums which is at odds with the stated ambition of ‘packed stands’. Hockey fans have been vocal in their criticism of a lack of access to some matches because of various broadcasting issues.
But these are all issues that were inevitable in the opening season. On the reverse, one has to acknowledge the passionate fans that packed the stadiums in Cordoba and Buenos Aires. And there is no getting away from the fact that most of the Pro League games have provided an incredible showcase for some of the best hockey talent in the world.