A quartet of Argentina national team players are up for prizes in the annual FIH Hockey Stars awards. From Los Leones, Lucas Vila is nominated for the men’s Best Player, while Maico Casella is a Rising Star nominee. Carla Rebecchi and Julieta Jankunas are nominees for women’s Best Player and Rising Star respectively.
Needless to say, all four players enjoyed a good year in 2019. Both the men’s and the women’s teams won the Pan American Games to secure automatic qualification for the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020. All four of the nominees played a big role in their team’s victories.
The women’s team was also the first side to qualify for the FIH Pro League Grand Final, although a fourth-place finish at the end-of-season finale was not the flourish to the season they would have liked. In the league itself, Argentina finished in second place, behind the Netherlands. Aside from the Dutch, Argentina recorded the most wins of any other women’s team – 10 – and won all the shoot-out matches in the four games they drew.
The men’s team were disappointed to end the Pro League season in fifth place and out of the Grand Finals. This was made doubly disappointing as they lost out on a place due to goal difference, something that might not have happened had their league match against Germany not been cancelled and the points shared.
So, what of the nominees themselves? What were the standout moments that caused them to be nominated for the biggest individual player accolade of all?
For Lucas Vila, 2019 is just another year in a long line of successful appearances for his country. Since he burst onto the international scene in 2006 at the Champions Trophy in Terassa, Spain, he has been a stalwart of the Argentina men’s team.
The pinnacle of Vila’s career to this point must be the 2016 Olympic Games where he scored four goals, including two crucial strikes in Los Leones’ opening match against the Netherlands.
Since then the 32-year-old has continued to be the dynamic midfield force that drives Argentina forwards in their own brand of exciting and creative hockey. His ability to conjure up chances from nowhere were evident in the opening season of the FIH Pro League as Vila popped up on the scoresheet with regularity, including two goals that sealed a hard-fought victory over the Netherlands.
In 2019, Vila was part of the team that won the Pan Am Games, beating Canada 5-2 in the final. By his own standards, he was quiet, scoring two goals and sitting out the quarter-final match against Peru.
In contrast, one of the youngest members of the team, Maico Casella, was leading the attack for his team in Peru. 10 goals in six games, including five in the demolition of Peru in the quarter-finals, were just one of many reasons that the Argentine striker is one of the nominees for FIH Rising Star.
The 22-year-old, who first made his debut for the senior team in 2017 at the Hockey World League Semi-Finals, has also shown he can cut it against the best opposition in the world. In the first six 2019 Pro League games Argentina played, Casella appeared on the score sheet on every occasion.
The other young Argentina hockey player who has made a tremendous impact since her arrival on the senior international scene in 2015 is Julieta Jankunas. Despite scoring five goals in the Pro League and a further 11 in the Pan Am Games, the 20-year-old says she was amazed to find herself among the nominees.
“The nomination took me by surprise,” she says. “When the nominations came out, I thought to myself ‘I hope there are some from Argentina’ and then I saw my name there. I spent two days just crying, I couldn’t believe it. That is what it means to me. It is amazing.”
Talking about the 2019 season, Jankunas says: “It was a very busy year, very loaded. Throughout the year, it was a case of taking things step-by-step and gaining confidence, particularly when it came to understanding my role on the pitch. For this coming season, I will be working to improve my positioning and my defensive play within the team.
“I think when you are feeling good within yourself, that is when your performance grows as well. At the Pan American Games, I feel I fulfilled what the coaching staff asked of me and we did what was needed to qualify for Tokyo and the chance to come home with an [Olympic] gold medal.”
Jankunas also paid a tribute to the support she received from both the national team coaching staff and the coaches and players at her club in Buenos Aires, saying: “Chapa (Carlos) Retegui, together with the coaching staff, helped me play to the highest standards I could. And I received tremendous support and good vibes from the City of Buenos Aires club, who always welcome me back whenever I have the chance to play for them.”
Jankunas, like just about every other hockey player heading to Tokyo, dreams of Olympic success. But success would be particularly sweet for her compatriot Carla Rebecchi who will be hoping that this is the year that she finally turns silver to gold.
Las Leonas have a proud tradition at the Olympic Games but their highest achievement, since Rebecchi joined the squad, is a silver at the 2012 Games in London. The 35-year-old’s first Olympic Games was Beijing in 2008, although she made her senior team debut four years earlier in 2004.
Since then, Rebecchi has been an absolute bedrock of the Argentina team, playing well over 300 games and scoring more than 160 goals. She attempted retirement in 2017 and in the 18 months she was away from the game, she gave birth to daughter Vera.
However, the diminutive striker was back with a vengeance for the 2019 Pro League and quickly demonstrated that she had lost none of her pace or goal scoring acumen. As a cautionary note to all opponents, Rebecchi was voted Player of the Match after the opening game versus Belgium and she just seemed to get better and better as the season progressed.
In an interview with the newspaper Clarin, Rebecchi admitted that even as she was enjoying her pregnancy, she knew in her heart of hearts that she wasn’t quite finished with hockey. “From the outside, I saw the girls training and I knew I hadn’t really closed the door. Whether I returned depended upon a lot of factors but when the opportunity arose, I felt like trying because I knew I had more to give.”
A nomination for Best Player, match-winning performances in the Pro League, another shot at Olympic gold – it’s not just Rebecchi who is glad she made the decision to return, her team mates and Argentina’s legions of hockey fans are very delighted as well.
And the veteran striker says she is enjoying her hockey as much, if not more, than ever. “I think last year was a good one for me because everything is different now. I enjoy being back in the team after becoming a mother and having my baby".
‘Yes, everything is a little bit tougher, like I have to put in a little bit more effort than I did before. It is also tough to leave her [Vera] when I travel away but playing hockey is the thing I love most in my life. Now it is a different moment for me. I am seeing hockey from another side and enjoying it even more. That is what makes it a special year for me.”
With four nominees across all the categories, Argentina’s hockey teams just ooze quality. As the youngest of those nominees, Julieta Jankunas sums up just what it means to be a member of the fabled Leonas and Leones.
“Just being here, being part of it all inspires you. My teammates provide constant motivation and inspiration. Wearing the Argentina shirt gives such pride. I can’t even explain what it means to represent your country. Only the people in the team know just what effort goes into getting into the team and then holding your place there.”