Chile and Uruguay are two nations whose women’s national teams regularly appear in top tier competitions, flexing their bourgeoning hockey muscles against the likes of Great Britain, Argentina and India.
Although it’s the women’s senior teams that are leading the way, both Uruguay and Chile men’s national teams and junior squads are also making huge strides on the international stage.
Chile women are currently ranked 18th in the world, with the men’s team ranked 28th, while for Uruguay, the women are ranked 25th in the FIH World Rankings and the men’s team ranked 56th.
These achievements are remarkable as neither national association has a base that it can call home. In Chile, particularly in Santiago, there are sand and water-based pitches available for the teams to train on but no national stadium where the team can regularly meet and train. In the case of Uruguay, there is no water-based pitch in the entire country, so its teams are not able to train on the surface that they will compete upon in international competition.
Importantly, this also restricts competition as other nations cannot often be tempted to travel for test matches against Uruguay, thus denying the teams practice against top level competition.
But all that is set to change for both national associations. For Chile, the advent of the Pan American Games in Santiago in 2023 has provided the catalyst for the installation of a stadium complete with two water-based pitches in the country’s capital. It is something that delights Head Coach Sergio Vigil: “We all have a sports dream. And that dream is to do with the participation of the Diablos and Diablas at the next Pan American Games in Santiago. The venue will provide a place where hockey can be played by all people, regardless of their financial situation.
“The government has rewarded us, not just the national teams who are preparing to grow, who dream of being Olympians and playing their best hockey at the Pan American Games in 2023, but also it has rewarded the Federation for the work it has done with the different social classes, so they can all take part in hockey.”
And for Uruguay, all that stands between the national associations and a new water-based facility is a financial injection to get the project to the final stage of completion.
It has been a five-year process so far. In 2015, Uruguay Hockey Federation won the FIH Pablo Negre Award, which rewards innovation and adhering to the spirit of hockey. As part of the award, the Federation received support for both a new pitch and lighting.
Although the concept of a hockey venue was born back in 2015, it wasn’t until November 2019 that work finally began on the new water-based pitch, which will be supplied by Polytan Asia. The first job was to clear land and dig foundations at the city council-owned Lavalleja Park land, which has been handed over to the association for a 20-year period.
By April 2020, the sub- base level was complete; the synthetic floor was travelling to Uruguay from Germany; the shock-pad from Portugal and Italy; the water treatment system from China; and machinery from Hong Kong. All the equipment is now in storage and the Hockey Association is waiting for borders to re-open so the Polytan technicians can start to install the shock-pad and carpet.
With the dream so close to realization, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time. Finding sponsors and fundraising activities all ground to a halt and now the project is hovering tantalizingly near completion. President of the Uruguay Hockey Federation is Danae Andrada. She voices her frustration: ‘We know we need support for the last step and COVID-19 situation has made it a real struggle for us when it comes to finding new sponsors or financial aid from our government. For sure health and social concerns are above all but we are running our own race to finish this construction.”
And so the Uruguay Hockey Federation is calling on the hockey community to help get the project over the finish line. A further 30 per cent of the final costs are still needed, but the Federation is turning to technology and innovation to get the dream realized.
An App has been launched, called Cancha Celeste or Sky Blue Pitch – in recognition of the striking blue turf that will eventually be laid. Via the App, people are invited to buy a metre of the turf anywhere they choose on a virtual replica of the playing surface. Early popular purchases are in both goal mouths, circle areas and around the centre spot.
Individuals, clubs, national associations and continental federations who donate money and buy a metre of the pitch in this way will see their name displayed on a huge advertising banner that will be situated next to the pitch.
Substantial support has already come from the Federation’s sponsors: Movistar, Polytan, Gustavo Amespil Dispatchers, Musco. Now the Federation is asking the wider international hockey community for some support to push the project to completion.
In Chile, the progression towards a new facility is a few months behind their neighbors. Walter Kramer explains that the national association is currently going through the bidding process for the construction of two water-based pitches. Once that process is complete, then the fine-tuning of the plans will be the next stage.
The plans are exciting and vast. The Chile National Hockey Stadium will comprise two pitches with stands, accompanying dressing rooms, a suite of offices, media facilities and a well-equipped gym. It will provide a home to a whole range of users: club teams, national league games, national teams – seniors and juniors – and regional teams. The facility will be ready in time for the 2023 Pan Am Games, but the legacy of such a development will benefit generations to come.
Financing such an operation has been as much a challenge as the actual construction, but the Chile Hockey Federation has been engaged in conversation with three consecutive governments. The advent of the Pan Am Games in 2023 was the catalyst for the final push for completion.
Kramer’s excitement is palpable as he talks about the new facility. “The impact of the development will be huge,” he says. “It will open doors and provide the venue to plant seeds [of interest] in huge non-hockey communities.
The pitch development in Chile has been driven by the Chile Hockey Federation Board. Kramer says: “The current Board has been in office since the beginning of 2013 and we made the new pitch and stadium a top priority. Yes, it took us quite some time to get here, but we were able to rightly justify the need for it.
“There were times when it was at risk of not getting the approval for the funds, but at the end of the day, the driving force has really been the growth and the hunger we have see in our teams and our players. We really needed a new house to host all this developmental opportunity.”
The importance of building more high-quality pitches in the region has been noted by Pan American Hockey Federation President Alberto ‘Coco’ Budeisky. Speaking about the Uruguay pitch project he said: ’The end date of a dream held for a long time by the entire Uruguayan hockey family is approaching. The completion of the first synthetic water hockey pitch.
‘Uruguayan hockey has seen great growth, especially in the women's sector, in recent years. It has shown such potential at youth, junior and senior levels.
‘Despite not having a water pitch to train, the brave Cimarronas have demonstrated
their qualities and determination to progress. Its leaders and fans have made great efforts to support this project, which was born some years ago with the Pablo Negre Award from the FIH.
‘Now in the midst of the pandemic, which does not make things easier, we see how this is taking shape. It is a deserved achievement, which will help the development of hockey in Uruguay and consequently, across all Pan American hockey.’
For both Chile and Uruguay, the development of water-based pitches and accompanying stadiums will not only allow them to train on the same quality and type of pitch that they will encounter at international tournaments, it will also make them attractive destinations for travelling teams.
And for hockey development in South America, this is all good news. Hockey spectators can watch top level hockey and become inspired to play. New hockey players make for a wider talent pool, which in turn strengthens the sport at all levels. It is a magnificent example of hockey’s virtuous cycle.