Uruguay U22 women’’s national team made history in August when they secured a place at the FIH Women’s Junior World Cup after finishing runners-up to Canada in the final of the Junior Pan American Championships.
It was the highest finish for the Uruguay team since the competition started in 1986, with their previous best place being fifth in 2016. Now the team will be heading to South Africa in December to pit their talents against the other best junior teams in the world.
Uruguay’s junior teams do have form when it comes to upsetting the world rankings. Constanza Barrandeguy represented Uruguay at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, where the South American team finished second in their pool. Among the major scalps they took on this occasion were Germany, who they beat by a convincing 6-2 scoreline and New Zealand, who they beat 6-3.
They then came up against Argentina in the quarter-finals, which ended in a 9-0 loss, but the Uruguay side bounced back to beat Germany again before losing to New Zealand in the play-off for fifth place. Speaking of that time, Barrandeguy says: ‘A little like the team that won silver at this year's Junior Pan Am Championships, we were not expected to do very well at the Youth Olympics’.
‘We trained so hard and had really tough preparations for those games. We didn’t expect anything but we demonstrated that Uruguay has huge potential and, whichever team it is, U18, U21 or senior, we want to be recognised on the world stage.”
Elisa Civet and Pilar Oliveras were two members of the Uruguay squad that took silver in Santiago just a month ago. Looking back at the Junior Pan Am Championships, Civet said: “We didn’t know what to expect because we had a very hard pool but we went and played our game in every match and we stayed focused and we ended up doing very well and I am very proud of the team.”
Oliveras added: ‘If we look at the results, we didn’t score many goals but the most important thing was that the whole team played defensively very well. And I don’t mean just in defence, but across the whole team. Each line worked hard to defend and then, when we won the ball, we could start to build an attack. But first, we needed to gain the ball and keep possession.’
When it comes to strengths, both players agree that it is the attacking aspect of the game that the squad needs to master. In a tournament where they finished in second place, the team only scored one goal, winning by virtue of a string of drawn results. Those draws were against the higher ranked teams, Argentina and Canada. The sole goal was scored against USA, another team that ranks higher than Uruguay.
As they prepare for the FIH Junior World Cup in South Africa, over the next few months, both Oliveras and Civet agreed that the team will be focusing on its attacking prowess. ‘We have the defence well prepared,” said Oliveras. “Now we need to make sure we can score the goals too.’
‘We are sure that our defence is pretty good but we need to know how to finish an attacking move off. Against the USA, [at the Junior Pan Am Championships] one of our goals was to enhance the attack – and it worked.’
The confidence the team will have gained in winning a silver medal at the Pan American Games is something that will prove invaluable as they head to South Africa, said Barrandeguy.
‘It is a really important achievement for them,’ she said. ‘I am sure that they realise the potential that they have but these results show they have the capacity to put in a good performance at the World Cup. But it is not just that: these results mean a lot for all the teams, including the senior team. It is important that the juniors win because they are the future. And when they get onto the world stage, they can show what Uruguay hockey is all about.’
Barrandeguy added that the new water-based pitch which has recently been built will be a huge boost for hockey in the South American country. ‘It will make a big difference in our training, our games and our future tournaments. It is things like this that will reduce the gap between Uruguay and the USA and Argentina.
For the next few months, the junior women’s team will be making their preparations for their South African adventure. For Pilar, most of those preparations will take place away from her teammates as she is in college, studying in Michigan, USA.
‘We are training four hours a day [with the college team] and we play two times at the weekend. The rest of the team will be playing every day. We will all be working as hard as we can in the coming weeks.’
Civet added that the team will be playing matches against the Uruguay senior team and club sides, but due to the pandemic they will not be able to get international experience as travel restrictions are still in place. ‘Many of the other nations still cannot travel, so we will not be playing against other nations.’
We were thinking that the Junior Pan Ams were going to be tough, so we went there just knowing that we would play our own game. It is the same with the Junior World Cup, every match will be tough, every team will be good. We will just go there playing hard and seeing where we get to.’
Barrandeguy added her final pieces of advice to the younger players: ‘The most important thing is to enjoy it. They are making history so I really want them to enjoy it. But I also want them to train hard and make more history at the Junior World Cup. They have already made history but if they win medal in South Africa, that will be a plus, plus.’
Uruguay U21 women’s team will be competing for the first time in the FIH Women’s Junior World Cup in Potchefstroom, South Africa. A total of 16 teams compete, representing five continents. The reigning champions are Argentina.