The three PAHF women’s teams of Chile, Uruguay and Mexico will be getting an early taste of what life could be like if they were to qualify for next year’s Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The three teams will be competing in the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima, Japan, knowing that a top-two finish will lead to a place in the Olympic qualifying events later in the year.
A fourth PAHF team, Canada, will be contesting the equivalent event in Valencia, Spain, hoping to emulate the Canada men’s team who finished top of the podium in Malaysia at the first of three men’s FIH Series Finals events.
In Hiroshima, Chile (World Ranking:16) and Mexico (WR:29) will open the proceedings with a Pool B clash, while Uruguay (WR:24) will be in the extremely tough Pool A, where ninth ranked India are their first opponents.
All four teams have been undergoing extensive preparations in readiness for the Series Finals, with test matches and training blocks that will stand them in the best position to compete for those all-important top two positions. We caught up with members of two of the teams that are hoping their journey to the Olympics will continue after the FIH Series Finals draw to a close.
Denise Krimerman has long been an integral part of the Chile national women’s squad. She tells us about the preparations that the team, also known as the Diablos, have been through in the lead-up to the FIH Series Finals.
“We had an international level preparation. We started in January and February, with test series against USA (WR:12), Belgium (WR:13) and Ireland (WR:8). Then we had some very high intensity weeks, getting ready for matches against Korea (WR:11) and Japan (WR:14) that took place in April. That has been great preparation as we have been able to face all kinds of games, and played teams with different cultures, all the time fine-tuning the details for the Series Finals.”
Krimerman, who has more than 140 international caps to her name, says the experience of playing teams such as Ireland, who won silver at the 2018 women’s World Cup and the Asian countries Korea and Japan, who have a long tradition of World Cup and Olympic hockey, has proven invaluable in improving and developing their game.
It should also be noted that in matches against Korea and Japan, Chile were far from outplayed. Against Korea they drew two and lost two, while against Japan, the team lost two and won one match. Aside from the experience of playing Asian teams, with their very different playing style, the test matches also gave the Chile team a chance to learn how to cope with the demands of long travel and playing in different climates. They will arrive in Hiroshima 10 days ahead of the event, in order for the players to acclimatise completely.
Camila Caram is captain of the Chile national squad and one of the team’s most capped players with 220 caps. Like Krimerman, she is certain that the high intensity preparations are just what is needed to achieve success in Hiroshima.
“Everything is going well. We have had a couple of injuries within the squad lately, which has been a little bit of a shock, but still, we have to continue and stay focused.”
“We know we will face tough teams in Hiroshima, but we also know they are not invincible. We have studied our opposition thoroughly, we know their weak points and we will try to exploit those.
“And we know we have to play a very good game, efficient in the attack and very secure in defence. We must go into each game being very confident of the strong points in our own game – our penalty corners, for example, are a very strong part of our game.”
“They will each be different types of games,” adds Krimerman. “Each team does something that makes it different, the important thing is to know the things they specialise at within their system. Then we learn how to break down those structures and make them feel uncomfortable. They will be tremendous matches. The team who makes the least mistakes and the one who knows how to break the other's structure, will be the winner.”
For Uruguay, the FIH Series Finals offers a chance to make up valuable ranking points and overturn recent losses at the hands of their near neighbours Chile. The two teams, until recently, were close in the rankings but Chile have drawn ahead thanks to a strong performance in the Series Open. In players such as Manuela Vilar and Milagros Algorta, they have two wonderful goal scorers, Vilar is a skilful forward, while Agorta is a penalty corner specialist.
Uruguay are, however, a team that is rebuilding, and with ten of their squad on less than 20 caps – including three debutants – Pilar Oliveros and Magdalena Gomez and goalkeeper Victoria Bate – there is a level of inexperience, particularly around ‘must-win’ international competition, where resilience in the latter stages of the tournament are vital. The South American team will be looking to players such as Janine Stanley, Anastasia Olave and captain Agustina Nieto to provide a lead in the Series Final campaign.
Central America’s representative is Mexico, a team that has been developing quickly in the past few years. Mexico played well in the Series Open event, finishing second to Canada and racking up 48 goals in four matches. With those goals coming against lower-ranked teams, it will be interesting to see if Head Coach Arely Castellanos has developed a defensive strategy to match their attacking power. Mexico will field a relatively experienced side, with captain Michel Navarro and goalkeeper Jesus Castillo integral to Mexico’s performance at the Series Finals.
Navarro, in particular, will be important to her side’s adaptation to an international stage. She has played in Germany and Belgium and also has played in four Central American and Caribbean Games, plus two Pan American Games. It is this wealth of experience that she will bring to her team, although as she pointed out in an interview with the sports website Deporte.digital.mx: “If we want to advance, we must all put in total concentration, apply ourselves and not make expensive mistakes.”
Another team that has been undergoing intensive preparations for the challenge of the FIH Series Finals is Canada. The players have been playing in the highly competitive Belgium domestic league since September and have been able to meet for centralised training in Belgium, when not playing club hockey.
It is an experience that Canadian striker Hannah Haughn sees as invaluable: “We had access to high-quality facilities and specialist trainers each week,” she is quoted on the Field Hockey Canada website. “Furthermore, we have been able to fully immerse ourselves in the hockey ‘culture’ and schedule games against other neighbouring countries on short notice with little cost.”
The situation may seem unusual but it is one with which Head Coach Giles Bonnet is both happy and feels necessary.
“Our preparation in Belgium is not really different to other teams who train a few days a week together. I think that this is fairly common place and the difference being for us is that it’s not full time as we need to manage this with the clubs.
“The training and living conditions we have in Belgium are not for the fainthearted. The travel, the hours the players invest on the field are mentally and physically fatiguing. We trust that this will have added to the resilience the team has already had in their value system.
“Playing in the Belgium competition with matches week in and week out will also add to this robustness and provide invaluable experience for each player. As foreigners, the Canadian players are expected to deliver week in and week out, which has a cyclical impact on the players mentality.”
Bonnet adds that this is the best option for a squad that isn’t in a position to have a full-time centralised program in Canada.
“We actually feel we are barely doing enough to not fall behind the other countries who have either full time programs or the funding to come together on a fairly regular basis.”
“It is hard to do what we are doing but, without adequate funding, this is our only option and the time and effort the players put in to be together is commendable and has bonded the group, connecting them in a common cause.”
When it comes to achieving a top-two finish in Valencia, Bonnet says it will come down to small details, in particular, “The set pieces and the players’ resilience to withstand the pressure moments.”
This is the edge that Bonnet hopes his team will have gained through their experiences in the Belgium league. Certainly their results in test matches point to a team heading towards optimal form – with a test series win over Scotland (WR:18) and a 6-0 win over France (WR:30).
The FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima take place from 15-23 June. Uruguay are in Pool A, along wth India, Poland and Fiji, Chile and Mexico are in Pool B, competing against Japan and Russia.
Canada face Spain, Belarus and Namibia in Pool A in Valencia, while Italy, South Africa, Wales and Thailand are the four teams that comprise Pool B.