A sell-out crowd packed into the Estadio Municipal de Hockey in Cordoba as Argentina’s men and women hosted the international teams of Belgium on Match Day 3 of the inaugural edition of the FIH Pro League.
Carla Rebecchi’s return to international hockey after a two-year absence proved fruitful as she produced a Player of the Match performance to help Argentina’s women claim a 2-0 victory over the Red Panthers. However, the European nation gained a measure of revenge in the second match of the day as Belgium’s men earned a 4-2 triumph against Los Leones, the Olympic title holders, in hot and humid conditions in South America.
The action began with the first women’s match of the FIH Pro League, as Las Leonas (FIH World Ranking: 4) faced the Red Panthers (WR:13). Argentina – coached once again by Carlos Retegui, the man who guided Argentina’s women to World Cup glory in 2010 before taking the men team to an Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016 – were the superior side in the opening stages, with Agustina Albertarrio rattling the frame of the Belgian goal early on before having a goal ruled out by a video umpire referral.
It seemed only a matter of time before the home favourites, cheered on by the fans with every attack, made the breakthrough. The inevitable goal arrived in the 12th minute thanks to a cool close-range finish from Julieta Jankunas, although it was the brilliance of Carla Rebecchi who made it possible, surging into the circle from the right to mark her return to international hockey after a two-year absence with a wonderful assist.
European silver medallists Belgium – who were missing team captain Anouk Raes through injury – were vastly improved in the second quarter and caused their higher-ranked opponents some serious problems. Anne-Sophie Weyns and Jill Boon were influential figures as the Red Panthers applied great pressure to the Argentine defensive line, although Leonas shot-stopper Belen Succi did not allow herself to be beaten.
Argentina turned the screw in the third quarter, with Belgian goalkeeper Aisling D’Hooghe making some excellent saves before eventually conceding a second goal as Agustina Habif tapped in a penalty corner with three minutes of the period remaining.
The Europeans gave an excellent account of themselves in the final quarter. Louise Versavel had two great chances to reduce the deficit, failing to connect from close range before forcing another solid save from Succi with a penalty corner drag-flick ahead of the final hooter.
“I’m really happy with our start and I’m really happy being back here with the team, so it was really nice to win here today”, said Player of the Match Carla Rebecchi, the 34-year-old attacker who has been tempted back to the international scene after announcing her retirement at the start of 2017. Looking ahead to her team’s next FIH Pro League fixture against the USA, which takes place in Cordoba on 2 February, Rebecchi said: “We will keep training just the way we have trained for the past 12 days, and we hope we can win that game as well.”
Belgium’s Barbara Nelen – who now heads to New Zealand with her team ahead of their upcoming FIH Pro League match against the Black Sticks on 1 February – said: “I think we played really well, sometimes dominating the game so I am really happy. It is also fantastic to play in front of a crowd like this. If we had scored a PC [penalty corner] maybe it would have changed the game. We had a lot of chances, but it is progress for us and in the next game we will for sure score those.”
The meeting between men’s international teams of Argentina (WR:4) and Belgium (WR:1), the reigning Olympic and World champions respectively, had the potential to be an absolutely thrilling fixture between two sides famed for attack-focussed hockey. The rematch of the Rio 2016 Olympic final certainly did not disappoint in the opening stages, with the top-ranked Red Lions needing just two minutes to open the scoring as Tom Boon smashed home a brilliant first-time strike on the turn to reward some high-quality build-up play from Florent Van Aubel.
Belgium’s defence was regularly called into action in the first period, with Loick Luypaert making numerous crucial blocks as the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallists searched for a leveller. Lucas Martinez came close to restoring parity late in the quarter, but his instinctive volley sailed over the top of Vincent Vanasch’s goal.
Argentina pulled themselves level midway through the second period thanks to an extraordinary goal from Lucas Vila, whose crucial touch on Juan Lopez’s blistering pass gave Vanasch absolutely no chance of saving. The ingenuity and craft of Vila’s goal left almost everyone needing to take a second look, with umpire Simon Taylor using his own video referral to confirm that the delicate touch had indeed been made in the scoring circle.
A yellow card five-minute suspension to Argentine captain Pedro Ibarra at the end of the second quarter left Los Leones a player short in the opening stages of the third period, although the home favourites managed to keep the world champions off the score-sheet before Ibarra returned to the action. However, the hosts were reduced in numbers once again when Santiago Tarazona’s foul on Tom Boon in the circle resulted in a yellow card and the first penalty corner of the game, with veteran goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi producing a brilliant, diving stick save to deny the drag-flick of Alexander Hendrickx.
Despite being a player down, Argentina had a terrific chance to take the lead when they won a penalty corner in the latter stages of the period. In the absence of prolific goal-scorer Gonzalo Peillat, Pedro Ibarra stepped up for flicking duties. However, an error at the top of the circle was brutally punished by the Belgians, who raced down the other end and took a 2-1 lead through Gauthier Boccard. The Red Lions hit a third less than a minute later thanks to Player of the Match Victor Wegnez, before Tom Boon made it 4-1 early in the fourth quarter with a cool deflection after a moment of brilliance from the exceptional Arthur Van Doren.
A tap-in from Argentina’s Martinez certainly kept things interesting, but despite further efforts on goal from Vila and Matias Paredes, the Belgian goal-line remained untroubled in the latter stages as Shane McLeod’s World Cup winners claimed a fine victory on Argentine soil.
“It was really difficult, it is always tough to play against Argentina because they defend really well”, said Belgium midfielder Victor Wegnez after the match. “They are very dangerous on the counter-attack but I think we dominated all the game and I think it is logical that we took the three points today.”
Argentina captain Pedro Ibarra said: “We knew from the beginning that this was going to be a really tough game. They are the world champion and are in really good shape, they are first in the world [rankings]. For us, it is really nice for us to play in Argentina. We are building the team again and have to go step by step in the Pro League.”