“Are you going to Argentina tomorrow…with Bloemendaal?!” On the eve of flying to beautiful Buenos Aires with my club team, that’s the WhatsApp I received from one of my mates. The majority of my hockey friends and colleagues, along with the wider hockey family in the UK, I believe, shared her sentiment, because lets be honest, boarding the Chunnel as a club team in the UK and playing some hockey in Europe is a big deal, let alone to hotfoot it half way across the world. Bloemendaal Ladies 1s weren’t the only Hoofdklasse team to venture to a different continent either; Amsterdam visited Zambia in support of the Hockey Dreams Foundation and Laren warm weather ‘trained’ on the Dutch Caribbean Island, Aruba!
Bloemendaal men’s 1st team did a similar trip a few years ago, so the idea and contacts were all in place. Of course, Argentina was a popular choice with the girls, with most of the team never having left Europe it was going to be an exciting experience to savour. A whole week away from work, for the majority in the English leagues would be nigh on impossible, but having a young team made up mostly by students this was slightly easier to navigate. Another variation between the English and Dutch leagues is the length of time in the winter break. A two-month difference not only allows for a better indoor league, it also makes trips like this possible.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed a good few mid-season tours with Leicester at the Los Reyes Tournament hosted by Real Club de Polo de Barcelona ten to fifteen years ago, and my former team, along with Surbiton enjoyed the same Spanish sun this January as the invitational tournament entered it’s 69th edition. Whether it be a short or long haul flight, the reason for leaving the northern European shores are the same, frozen pitches don’t make for good training, or any for that matter, and as each and every club team in their respective top flight prepares for the second half of the season, some guaranteed training and matches are a must.
This opportunity wasn’t handed to us on a plate though, and the very same fundraising efforts ensued from my Dutch teammates as used to happen at my old clubs Leicester and Reading for each and every European campaign. The selling of team memorabilia, a live auction and additional player contributions made up the bulk of the funds and covered the flights. A different world? Not so much.
Princess Argentina took care of things from the South American side in return for our expertise. As a squad we gave two hockey clinics to over 400 kids, and myself, Kate Richardson-Walsh and our coach Teun de Nooijer provided Q&A sessions to local coaches. The desire to learn and enthusiasm shown from the coaches was so infectious, I was surprised and intrigued to find out that each coach had been given a team from the Olympics in Rio to analyse and share their findings. Do groups of coaches do this in the UK? I’d be really interested to know if they do.
Of course, ensuring pitch time wasn’t the only benefit we were after, far from it. High on the agenda with these trips is to build a strong team culture and creating camaraderie by playing together, giving back to the community and of course socialising together. With three hockey days planned and three days to see the sights and have some fun we had plenty of time for it all.
We were warmly welcomed at two clubs. The first was Lomas Athletic Club, founded in 1891 by the English, showcasing not only hockey, but also rugby, bowls, tennis and even cricket. Its history and tradition was plain to see, from the clubhouse to the players, with the typical Argentine passion oozing from all of those that worked there, especially after a drop of their very own bottle of Malbec! A few bottles of said wine of course made it’s way back to The Netherlands. The second club, equally traditional was G.E.B.A, now this was a different world. Entering through gated security into what can only be described as a mini village, we found dozens of different sports pitches, swimming pools, dormitory style accommodation, the most beautifully crafted clubhouse and thousands of children enjoying their summer holidays.
Our time on the pitch was equally productive as our time off it. Thankfully the weather was a reasonably kind 28 degrees and double hockey training on the second day got us well and truly into it. Lomas hosted a 30-minute per match round-robin tournament, and with each match getting progressively harder from Italiano, to Lomas, to River Plate, we worked on the some much needed tactical areas of our game.
Our next test, this time at G.E.B.A was against Argentina! Although the best of Las Leonas, such as Merino, Granatto, Succi, one of the Habif sisters and the newly retired Rebecchi watched from the sidelines, it was still an unforgettable match for the team and the obligatory swapping of shirts that followed will forever act as a reminder. One final match versus the hosts, the best club side in Argentina with Argentine legend María Silvina D’Elía, the sweetest hit in the game running the show from the back, ended a very memorable day.
Good hockey, some decent results, beautiful sunshine, an open top bus tour, wine tasting, karaoke, salsa dancing, meeting some incredibly generous and warm people and making some life long friends – all in all, it was one hell of a week. Will it have the desired affect? We’ll have to wait and see.
Another memorable day I’ve had recently was my Investiture to receive an MBE at Buckingham Palace. There is something incredibly special about our Royal Family, and it was an absolute honour to walk through the grand Palace rooms and be presented with my medal by HRH The Prince of Wales. What the team achieved in Rio was the culmination of nearly a decade of fierce focus and dedication to the cause by many more women than took to the field in Brazil, so to say I’m proud to represent Great Britain hockey in these circumstances doesn’t even come close. Privileged to be able to share the day with my wife Kate, and loving supportive family, is something I will never forget.