Argentina surprised all and sundry, perhaps even themselves, as they crowned themselves in Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup glory. The South Americans may not have found many mentions whenever any ‘who are the strong contenders’ discussion was generated in the run-up to the marquee event. Argentina’s hockey has never been about being flashy and flamboyant – they have built a reputation for having a robust defensive structure that make it hard for the opposition to breach their citadel. Los Leones thrive in slick passing play, strong ball distribution skills, dominating the midfield and count a lot on set-pieces to score goals.
For a nation that eat, sleep and breathe soccer, Argentina manages to grab newspaper headlines owing to their exploits on the hockey pitch. Like any other side they had to battle with Covid-19 related challenges and their preparations weren’t exactly adequate. But then, tournaments such as the Junior World Cup are a great stage for nations to assess how the talents coming through the under-21 ranks are shaping up and how is the health of domestic hockey and whether junior hockey programmes are yielding the desired results. The Bhubaneshwar glory left no one in doubt that Argentina’s junior hockey is in very good health.
Argentinian skipper Facundo Zarate has provided inspirational leadership throughout the tournament – he manned the defence with aplomb as well as shouldering the short corner scoring responsibilities besides ensuring the team operated as a cohesive unit. Zarate was ably supported by the likes of Lautaro Domene and Bruno Stellato to ensure Argentina consistently wore a formidable look in deep defence. Domene’s hat-trick in the final could not have come at a more opportune moment.
How can goalkeeper Nehuen Hernando miss mention? He was at his peak form in key games – the crucial saves in the quarterfinal against the Netherlands, two shootout saves in the semifinal against France and his bout of brave goalkeeping in the final against Germany have been more than meaningful contributors to Argentina’s magnificent run in the Junior World Cup.
Every player has risen to the occasion. If Joaquin Kruger’s initiative-wresting goal against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals was a beauty, how can one forget Franco Agustini’s match-winner with a minute left for the final hooter that was of course possible with some Dutch generosity? France given their form in the league phase were expected to roll over Argentina but the latter taught them a lesson or two about how having a strong defensive structure that can knock the stuffing out of the best sides in the world. They just did allow France open spaces to play their free-flowing hockey, forcing the contest into a shootout where the South American pulled through without much stress.
The final was a classic example of the tenacity of the Argentinians. They had a two-goal cushion at half-time but weathered the German fightback in the second half as the match was even stevens and added two more goals to trigger a memorable Junior World Cup campaign.
It’s a logical progression to see junior talents to transition to the senior team – the likes of Facundo Zarate, Lautaro Domene, Nehuen Hernando, Joaquin Kruger, Franco Agustini, and a few more have all it takes to break into the Senior Argentina side and make the country at the 2024 Paris Olympics.