The Olympic hopes and dreams for the Pan American Hockey Federation this year rest with two nations – Argentina and Canada.
The men’s and women’s national teams of Argentina and the men’s team of Canada will be taking to the biggest international stage, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, as they do battle with the eleven other top nations to win a coveted Olympic medal.
For Argentina men, this is a chance to defend the gold medal they won in such glorious fashion in Rio five years ago. Then, the team defeated Belgium 4-2 with an energetic display of attacking hockey, tempered by some very cool-headed defending. The team’s progress through the tournament had been steady but not spectacular. An opening 3-3 draw with the Netherlands was followed by a 3-1 win over Canada, a close 2-1 victory over India and a scintillating 4-4 draw with Germany.
In the knock-out stages, Argentina beat Spain in a match that was really played out in the final three minutes, with Spain scoring in the 57th to bring the scores level, before Juan Gilardi scored the winner in the final minute of play.
A re-match with Germany in the semi-finals saw Argentina hit top gear as they beat Germany 5-2, before Pedro Ibarra, Ignacio Ortiz, Gonzalo Peillat and Agustin Mazzilli all found the net to beat Belgium in the final.
Several of Los Leones remain in the squad that secured gold, but this is a new era, with plenty of teams lining up to take the crown. As captain Pedro Ibarra says: “We know we are the reigning champions, but this tournament is something different. It is now five years later, and every team has changed players, changed coaches, changed tactics, changed everything. So, we have to be quiet and go step-by-step, as we did in Rio.”
There are some seriously experienced players in the Argentina squad. Juan Vivaldi, at 42, is the oldest player at the tournament and has 288 caps to his name. Ibarra has 310, midfielder Juan Lopez has 316 and Lucas Vila, has 256.
That experienced is melded with some hot young talent in the shape of Nicolas Keenan, Thomas Habif and Santiago Tarazona, but Head Coach Carlos Retegui is definitely plumping for wisdom over youth – the youngest player in the squad is 24-year-old Keenan.
The Head Coach, Retegui, will be hoping to make history as he is taking charge of both the men’s and women’s squads. There is a precedent to this – he did the same in the 2014 World Cup, leading both teams to Bronze, but Argentina is a country that loves its hockey and will be wanting its teams to come back with gold.
For Argentina women, this is the missing link in an otherwise glorious hockey history. Las Leonas won silver in 2000 and 2012, and bronze in 2004 and 2008. By their standards, a seventh position in 2016 was a real low point and they will be desperate to bounce back this time around.
Clearly, it is a team packed with talent. At 35, Belen Succi remains one of the world’s best goalkeepers and she has a defensive team around her that is notoriously hard to break down. At 37 and with 337 caps to her name, Noel Barrionuevo is a rock in defence and a threat at penalty-coners. Along with teammate Sofia Maccari, the two Argentinian defenders are the oldest players in the women’s competition.
When it comes to attacking options, Argentina are blessed with talent. Sisters Maria and Victoria Granatto create opportunities out of nowhere, while Agustina Albertarrio is imperious as she descends upon the opposition’s goal.
Long-serving forward Delfina Merino believes this could be Argentina’s year. Merino, who was FIH Player of the Year in 2017, says that the Olympics, and a good showing from the team, is just what is needed for the Argentina people after the devastation of the past 18 months of Covid restrictions.
Canada men reached their eighth Olympic Games after they defeated Ireland in a tense, exciting FIH Olympic Qualifier against Ireland. Their first appearance at an Olympics was also Tokyo, in 1964. To date, the Red Caribou’s best finish has been 10th, and, as captain Scott Tupper says, they are aiming for the quarter finals, which will eclipse any previous finish.
In Tupper, along with Mark Pearson, Taylor Curran, Gordon Johnston and Sukhi Panesar, Canada have a lot of experience. What they have lacked in the past 18 months is much match-play, due to Covid travel restrictions. However, this is a team that knows how to dig deep, can defend with raw aggression and will play with no fear.
One notable absence from the team sheet is long-serving goalkeeper David Carter, who chose not to travel to Tokyo when he was selected to be reserve goalkeeper.
Talking about the challenges ahead, Tupper says: “Our best placement at an Olympic Games is tenth, so if we can get into a quarter-final it would be the best performance by the Canadian men’s team ever, and we would love to do that.
“But I really do think it is one game at a time, and we must avoid letting a tough match at the start of the tournament roll into the next game. Ultimately, it is possible to get through with two good results. We would love to have more than two, but we really need to make sure that whether the previous game has gone well or not so well, we put it to bed and have a good game plan ready to go in order to seize any opportunity that presents itself.”
Both Argentina men and women qualified for the Games as continental champions, with Canada sealing their place with an exciting victory over Ireland men in the 2019 FIH Olympic Qualifiers.
Looking at the pools, there will be no easy way to a quarter-final place for any of the PAHF representatives. In Pool A, Argentina men will find themselves up against the world number one side Australia, as well as a tricky encounter with India – a team that has been on the rise and will be looking to reignite their Olympic winning ways.
Spain are always a threat, in test matches played at the start of July, the European side held Argentina to a 2-2 draw before defeating the reigning Olympic champions by a 3-1 margin.
New Zealand showed both resilience and attacking flair in recent FIH Hockey Pro League matches against Australia, and the host nation, Japan, are reigning Asian champions.
If anything, Canada face an even bigger challenge. Belgium are currently second in the world rankings and were crowned FIH Pro League champions. They are a side oozing with talent and desperately want to add an Olympic title to the World Cup title they won in 2018.
However, Belgium’s ascendency has been challenged of late with both Netherlands and Germany defeating the Red Lions. The Netherlands in particular look like a side that is hitting peak form at the right time.
Great Britain are a side that can be excellent but suffer inconsistencies. In their head coach, Danny Kerry, however, they have a leader who knows how to prepare for the biggest occasion.
If Canada are needing points at the tail end of the pool matches, then playing South Africa could be a bonus. The African champions have been heavily curtailed in their preparations due to pandemic restrictions and this could make them vulnerable, particularly if they have suffered confidence-sapping losses in earlier matches.
For Argentina women, their Pool B rivals are all sides that Las Leonas, on their day, can defeat. If there are any slips however, all five opponents can hurt Argentina’s progress to the quarter-finals. The biggest threat will come from the Oceania duo. Under new head coach Katrina Powell [herself a double gold medalist with the Hockeyroos] Australia are starting to blossom. They play a high tempo, energetic game that puts relentless pressure on their opponents.
The Black Sticks revolve around Stacey Michelsen in midfield but they also have an ace goal scorer in Olivia Merry. Like Australia, their work ethic is immense.
Spain are a team that is still struggling to find consistency at the top level of international hockey. They teeter on the edge of breaking into the top 10, but just fall short. They are fast, they like to counter-attack but they can sometimes be curiously low on energy.
China are an unknown quantity at the moment. They haven’t played FIH Pro League hockey since January 2020, but head coach Yang Wang will have been working tirelessly to prepare his team to better their ninth-place finish from 2016. The Argentina team will know to expect solid defence with fast counter-attacks.
The other unknown quality is the Japanese team. While there will be no home crowd advantage, the Cherry Blossoms will have the benefit of knowing the pitch very well and being totally comfortable in the heat. The team want to leave a legacy of hockey and, in becoming Asian continental champions, they proved they know how to win.
While the focus will be upon the teams and their performances, there is also a great representation of officials from the PAHF region. From appeals jury, to technical officials to umpires, the PAHF hockey family will be showcasing the continent’s great hockey culture.
PAHF Olympic Officials
Maureen Craig-Rousseau - Appeal Jury President
Alberto “Coco” Budeisky – Appeal Jury
Royal Richardson - Technical Official
Rene Zelkin - Technical Official
Adrian Della Mattia - Technical Official
Steve Horgan - Umpires manager
Maggie Giddens - Umpire
Irene Presenqui - Umpire
Carolina de la Fuente - Umpire
Ayanna McClean - Umpire
German Montes de Oca - Umpire