By Rod Gilmour
In February, when Delfina Merino won the female world player of the year award at the FIH Hockey Stars in Berlin, the winners’ roll of honour briefly highlighted what Argentina has been missing since they last won the hockey World Cup in 2010.
Luciana Aymar won the award a staggering eight times during her illustrious career. But here was Merino, who was nominated for the award for the first time in 2015, taking over her mantle and collecting it for the first time – and rightly so – to break a three-year run held by Dutch players.
Having kept her award quiet from the team and the media when she was first contacted by FIH officials, Merino sent a short text message to Aymar before collecting her prize on a cold Berlin night. “I want to tell you that you are winning 8 to 1.. so get ready” she jokingly told the Argentinian great.
“I do not know if I am very aware of what this means,” she later told Clarin of her award, “it gives me tremendous pride and, at the same time, it seems crazy.”
For many observers, her recognition by fans and players is far from crazy. Merino, 28, will be playing in her third World Cup, alongside co-captain Belén Succi and Noel Barrionuevo, and thus will be one of the key players in the Argentina squad in London.
There will be added pressure for the forward. Expectation runs high in Argentina; hockey is the nation’s leading women’s sport and the legacy left by Aymar – a sculpture of her is one of many nods towards the sport in Buenos Aires – remains very much in evidence since the women’s team first put hockey on the map with Olympic silver behind Australia at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Merino remembers watching those Olympics on television back home, featuring the likes of Aymar and Cecilia Rognoni.
Aymar won her first world player of the year award the following year. Nine years later Merino made her debut in Argentinan stripes and will now be seen as a mentor to many Leonas’ starlets on their month-long European tour.
Ten players will be making their World Cup debut for Argentina in this edition. From an outside vantage point, that might represent one too many when it comes to the experience needed to lift the world title.
But Argentina’s coach, Agustín Corradini, has made sure that youth will be blended with experience thanks to having overseen 25 pre-World Cup matches prior to this weekend’s opening games.
Little wonder he calls it a ‘Barbarian World Cup’ for Argentina.
Further, coupled with the fact that the Argentinian domestic league is very competitive, they will certainly not be overawed in London.
Not least given that eight of the team won the Junior World Cup two years ago, while the standout remains 23-year-old María José Granatto, awarded the FIH best young player award for the second year running.
“It is a fulfilled dream and a very big responsibility,” Merino said, when asked the duties of being a Lioness.
“When you put on your shirt you are representing an entire country. We are very fortunate, there are very few people in the world who have the possibility to really do what they love. It is a privilege.”
Merino, who is in the final throes of qualifying as a lawyer, has largely played for Banco Provincia since she was five, her great-grandparents having run the bar at the club.
She will play her club hockey in the Netherlands next season – her third stint in the Dutch leagues – and her bond for the game is strengthened by a hockey-playing younger brother and her 91-year-old grandmother, who played the sport until she was 80.
Thanks to her grandmother, church remains an important part of her upbringing and one senses that playing for her country doesn’t weigh as heavily as it did for Aymar, who recently admitted that she hardly slept during her lengthy tenure playing for Las Leonas.
It’s no coincidence that when she collected her Berlin award that Cyndi Lauper’s Girls just want to have fun led Merino to the stage. For she makes sure that when it comes to building the team’s values off the pitch, she is at the centre of it.
She doesn’t like to keep herself in her hotel room on tour and will often be playing cards with her younger team-mates, playing alongside them on the pitch in an era for the sport which she knows is far more physical than when she first started out 10 years ago.
Yet Merino – often compared to Lionel Messi due to the award accolades she is now receiving, just as Aymar witnessed – also knows that her unerring skills have defined her game.
Her play is laced with intelligence and talent in tight spaces, her backhand shooting and, more often than not, she comes out on top in one versus one situations.
“Today there are things that I do not even know how I do them: they come natural to me,” she recently told La Nacion in an interview.
Her international experiences over the last decade have taught her that.
Now the world player of the year is entrusted with upping her individual skills and returning home with a world team title to cap a remarkable year.