Uruguay is a relative newcomer on the international hockey scene. The national association’s first appearance at a PAHF competition was at the women’s Pan American Cup in 2001, with the men making their first appearance three years later in 2004.
The Uruguay Field Hockey Federation itself is 23 years old this year and at that time, its two national teams have risen up the rankings.
The women are now highly respectable 25th in the world, while the men are hovering in the mid-50s after hitting an all-time high at 40th in 2006. In addition, two of the current women’s national team members, Teresa Viana and Manuela Vilar were nominated for the PAHF Elite team.
The Federation’s current President, Danae Andrada, is a former junior and senior national team player and, not surprisingly, she is a passionate advocate for developing hockey at all levels of the game and across the entire country.
“I have held a number of positions on various boards and committees, including PAHF and FIH, but for me the most important thing is helping develop hockey, in whatever capacity I can. When I think about the future of the sport, I dream of a world where everyone has the opportunity to participate in hockey. I know that for different nations, that means different things. For some nations it is about facilities, for others, it is about education.”
While Danae is keen for people of all ages to enjoy the sport, she says that attracting young people into the sport is the most important factor when it comes to developing hockey.
At grass roots level, junior hockey in Uruguay is spreading from the capital city to the outlying provinces. What began as the sport of choice in girl’s private schools, is gradually extending its reach.
Among boys and young men, football remains the number one team sport, but, says Danae, she and fellow coaches and development officers continue to beat the drum for hockey as a sport for both genders.
“We are working hard to get the game to spread to both the state schools and also attract more boys to the game. I say to them, if you understand the tactics of football, then you can understand the tactics of hockey. We can teach you the skills of the game. And there are many ways that hockey do things better than football, particularly when it comes to things such as off-side.”
Uruguay has a number of coaches working across all levels of the game. There are a number of high-performance coaches who are doing great work with the national teams.
Uruguay’s youth teams perform particularly well on the international stage, with a sixth-place finish at the women’s 2014 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires a particular highlight.
However, Danae is also pleased with the committed team of coaches who work at the grassroots level of the game.
“Yes, we have high-performance coaches but we also have a lot of coaches working in development. We have people who are interested in developing players at different ages and that is really important. We must make sure that we are supporting our young players with the appropriate training at the correct age and ability.”
One factor that has proven a major barrier to Uruguay’s growth as an international side to be reckoned with has been the lack of a water-based turf and headquarters for the national teams. That barrier is soon to be removed as the federation presses ahead with plans for a new hockey center at Lavalleja Park, in the municipality of Montevideo. It is a moment that can’t come soon enough for the President. The new pitch will mean that Uruguay can host top-flight international teams – something essential to any nation’s development.
Hand-in-hand with a lack of facilities has been a lack of regular international competition. Uruguay is a regular competition at all major PAHF events, winning a gold medal at the 2016 South American Championships.
However, the participation by the women’s national team at the recent FIH Series Finals held in Japan were an enormous strain on the finances but, says Danae, it was the case of everyone pulling together to make it happen because playing at that level of competition is crucial to the team’s growth and development. Uruguay finished sixth in that event, after proving themselves competitive with teams ranked many points higher.
Danae herself is in position to take a wide view of the sport. She sits on the executive board of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and so sees how other nations are doing in comparative terms. She says: “As a member of the FIH Executive Board I have learned to see hockey not from a national viewpoint, or even a continental viewpoint. Now, I have to look at hockey across the globe.
“I see there are are some countries in our hockey family who cannot even afford to travel for competitions. My dream is for the global hockey community to be so strong that everyone has the same opportunities. I would love to be able to look back in 20 years’ time and say that the FIH has managed to open up hockey to every nation.”
Back to hockey in Uruguay and Danae says that she has a simple formula for successful hockey development: “Junior, grassroots hockey is where it starts,” she says. “Build your strong foundations and the rest will follow. Invest time into providing a quality experience for young players and they will stick with the sport and you will have a wider talent pool to draw from. In turn, that means stronger national age-group teams and ultimately a stronger national team.”
Danae is also an ardent fan of teamwork in all its guises.
“It is no secret, it is all about working as a team and following a process, and all the people involved in that process working really, really hard.
“One of the most beautiful things about our game is the teamwork it involves. I am not just talking about the players in the squad, it is about the coaches, the manager, the officials. It is about all the things that come together to make the sport happen. Yes, it even means the federations and the other institutions involved in the process.
“I am so passionate about hockey. It is a game that has modernised and changed as necessary. It has not been scared to make those changes so that it becomes a better spectacle. For me, these are the things that attract people to hockey and make our sport unique.”
Uruguay’s next international challenge will be for the women’s team at the Indoor Pan American Cup in March